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February 24, 2011 » 8:03 am

The Networked Nonprofit Board

I’ve served on the board of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) for four years now, and I recently became the board chair. The thing I love most about LLC is how it models its principles. It doesn’t just talk about how leadership should be. It practices it, and it shares its learnings, both good and bad.

Deborah Meehan, LLC’s founder and Executive Director, recently wrote a blog post about our most recent board meeting, where we spent an afternoon thinking about what it would mean to the board if LLC were a more networked nonprofit.

Of course, simply talking about the idea among ourselves would have been interesting, but not as gratifying. Instead, we modeled the idea by inviting guests to think with us. (Beth Kanter, one of our guests, reposted Deborah’s post on her blog.) Even though I and other board members (notably Grady McGonagill) spend a lot of time thinking about networks, the truth is that the LLC staff deserves all the credit for moving us forward in this way.

At the end of her post, Deborah tells an anecdote about me, which I’ve heard her share often:

Two years ago, when we extended an invitation to our community to join the design team for our national meeting over 20 people responded and our board chair, Eugene Eric Kim, had the radical idea about selecting the team, take everyone! Well, that would be an interesting approach to board recruitment wouldn’t it?

She always refers to this idea as “radical,” which always amuses me. What was so radical about it? Organizing a national meeting is super hard, so why would you turn down help? The more the merrier, right?

Those who answer “no” are generally designing for the worst case scenario. If your group is too large, you might get sidetracked. You don’t want to accept a bad seed. Etc.

These are all valid concerns, but designing for the best case scenario is equally valid. You can do more work with more hands. The larger the group, the more likely you are to attract a diamond in the rough. Etc.

I prefer to design for the best case scenario, but I’m no pollyanna. I’ve seen processes get hijacked, even by people with the best of intentions. If you’re going to design for the best case scenario, you want favorable conditions. In my experience, you want the following:

  • Crystal clear goals
  • A strong core group of committed, facilitative individuals
  • A strong network with shared language

If you have these three things, you should be designing for the best case scenario, not the worst. In the case of the Creating Space conference two years ago, we had all three:

  • People knew exactly what the conference was about and what organizing it would entail. It was the ninth time LLC was organizing this conference, so there was plenty of experience
  • The LLC staff was fully committed, and it had hired one of the best facilitators in the business, Odin Zackman (who also attended our board discussion on networks). There were also a few committed, experienced volunteers we knew we could count on, regardless of who else ended up volunteering
  • As its name suggests, LLC’s biggest asset is its diverse community, which is full of brilliant people who are strongly aligned around its values and who have fostered strong relationships and shared language with each other over the years

Like I said, given these circumstances, the idea of accepting everyone who wanted to participate didn’t seem too radical to me.

How can we apply this thinking to boards on a networked nonprofit?

There are obvious places where this applies, and there are places where it’s extremely challenging. The obvious possibilities center around leveraging domain expertise. For example, nonprofits often choose board members who bring specialized knowledge in certain areas, such as finance, fundraising, or technology. In this capacity, board members are acting as advisors, but also network weavers — people who connect the organization to their networks. There’s no reason why you couldn’t open up this role to anyone in the network who was willing to play it.

The biggest challenge centers around governance. Nonprofit boards typically have fiduciary and oversight responsibility. How would you handle this in a more networked way? Network-oriented organizations (membership networks, for example) generally approach this by making some number of their board seats elected positions.

I think a more radical shift is possible. Jack Ricchiuto’s essay on going beyond consensus beautifully describes how to move from planning to activation. I believe there’s a model that builds on this thinking, delegating as much as possible to small groups, with the board acting as weavers.

That all sounds well and good, but the devil is in the details. I don’t know what that model looks like, and I realize that there are some huge obstacles, including some legal ones, that make this very challenging.

Technically, as Deborah notes in her post, LLC does not have this problem. It’s a project of the Tides Center, which means that our board is technically an advisory board, even though we operate as an oversight board. This gives us a bit more leeway to play.

And play we will! At the end of the day, we won’t get to the answer by sitting in a room and thinking really hard. We’ll get there by staying clear about the overall goal, taking small, concrete steps, and repeating the cycle, failing early and often.

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One Response to “The Networked Nonprofit Board”

  1. Thanks Eugene for this post. I just interviewed Annie Leonard from the Story of Stuff – another project that is sponsored by Tides. They also work as a network. There are differences in the two projects — in terms of audience, etc. But I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from how the STory of STuff works as a network: http://www.bethkanter.org/storyofstuff/ – What is transferable to governance?

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