This is a “white water” time in health care. The historic Affordable Care Act is opening access to health insurance to our country’s most vulnerable people (except the undocumented), yet it’s also straining our already overwhelmed public health system. For Bay Area cancer service providers like the Women’s Cancer Resource Center (WCRC), where I serve as executive director, the layoffs and program closures resulting from the “Great Recession” and the exit of the American Cancer Society from direct service have brought additional, formidable gaps in fragile safety net services.
Spurred by this turbulence, our board stepped back from business as usual in 2013 to deeply consider the question: What is this board’s highest purpose?
Rethinking Our Board’s Purpose
To stimulate our thinking in preparation for our semi-annual board retreat, board members read Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor. (Several months later, in November 2013, executive committee members and I attended Bill Ryan’s thought-provoking presentation as a part of CompassPoint’s Nonprofit Days Speaker Series.)
Our board retreat quickly demonstrated that while we are financially literate and actively engaged in fundraising, board meetings were structured as venues for staff to deliver and the board to receive information about events that were past, money that was spent (and raised), and the status of our strategic plan. In other words, our orientation was backward looking rather than forward thinking, reactive rather than proactive.
While covering these kinds of items are necessary board activities, the authors of Governance as Leadership refer to them as type one (fiduciary) and type two (strategic) governance. In type-three governance (generative) the board engages in deeper inquiry, exploring root causes, values, options, and new ideas. This is where the juice of board service is found.
Generative thinking occurs upstream from strategy and much farther upstream from tactics and execution. Generative board leaders ask "What problem are we solving?" to gain insight into organizational identity and purpose. Generative thinking provides board members the opportunity to lead as well as govern.
Breaking through Barriers to Generative Thinking
Barriers to generative thinking arise as board and staff engage in impression management – the very human tendency to want to look good and avoid looking bad. For executive directors (and I am no exception!), this frequently leads to “handling” behaviors: I may feel defensive, vested, anxious, vigilant, or nauseous, so I over-prepare, over-inform, minimize risk, lobby, and build coalitions. In response to feeling handled, board members may feel uncertain, under-valued, bored, or manipulated, leading them to disengage, resist, meddle, or second-guess.
When I saw Bill Ryan speak, he suggested that boards and EDs can stimulate a culture of inquiry and collaboration by asking "What question that is now undiscussed or undiscussable would you explore with the board/ED?”
Immediate questions that came to mind for my organization were:
- Where is our strategic plan taking us?
- What is our desired future?
- Do we have the board leadership we need to move into our desired future?
How We’ve Shifted as a Board
After nearly a year of reflection, skill building, leadership development, and lots of discussion, our board is putting what we’ve learned to work:
- The Executive Committee now develops the board meeting agenda with an eye to framing questions rather than simply presenting reports, voting recommendations, and resolutions. These questions are devices for understanding the organization rather than solving a specific problem or selecting an option.
- To borrow a phrase from a treasured colleague: Don’t do anything at a board meeting that you can do at home in your pajamas (the bunny slipper rule). Staff sends reports in advance with an invitation to raise any questions during a brief scheduled time at the meeting. I frame my monthly executive director report as a “white paper” rather than a catalogue of accomplishments.
- As Ryan and colleagues warn, you get what you ask for when recruiting board members. WCRC’s traditional board matrix has been abandoned and replaced with clarity about the attributes we are recruiting for. Leadership tops the list.
- As for me, after nearly thirty years of monthly board meetings in a variety of settings, I frame my board communications around the big questions that keep me awake at night. My “gracious leader” persona no longer dictates the requests I make (or don’t make) of my board.
WCRC has always had the advantages of agility and adaptability. In time, I expect the Women’s Cancer Resource Center will be known as much for our joyous, visionary leaders as we are for our compassionate service.
- Summary of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, Pew Charitable Trusts
- “Why Nonprofits Have a Board Problem,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
- CompassPoint Workshop: “Building Successful Boards Part 1”
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