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.

Authentic Relationships and Networking

A few months ago, I received a card from Deborah Meehan and my friends at the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). It was the second card I’ve received from them since joining their board earlier this year, and there was a long, personal note inside.    (MQV)

When Deborah and the others at LLC do things like send a card, it is a manifestation of an authentic feeling, which is a fancy way of saying that they actually mean it. Deborah is a fantastic networker, but she doesn’t network. She builds real relationships.    (MQW)

Contrast this to an experience I had on Facebook recently. My MO with most Social Network sites is to be pretty liberal about adding people to my network. (There are exceptions to this, which are probably worthy of a separate blog post one of these days.) If you invite me, and I know you, I’ll accept. If I don’t know you, then you’d better have a good reason for bothering me.    (MQX)

A few weeks ago, I got a Facebook “friend” request from a woman I didn’t recognize. We did have one friend in common, someone I knew and trusted. However, she also had over a thousand friends, which was a tip off that I probably didn’t want to deal with her. Nevertheless, I sent her a polite message asking her how we had met. She said that we hadn’t. I then asked why she had “friended” me. She responded that she couldn’t resist the smile in my picture.    (MQY)

That lame response pretty much killed any chance of me ever giving her the time of day. Nevertheless, my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to Google her. Turns out this woman is a “professional networker” (tip off number two for me to stay away). Even worse, one of her tips for networking is to always give people a valid reason for connecting to them. Apparently, she didn’t believe in practicing what she preached.    (MQZ)

This, my friends, is why I hate “networkers.” You want to build a better network? Here’s my two-step process. Go someplace where there are people. Have Authentic Conversations. That means, follow your curiosities and passions, and listen.    (MR0)

Lest you feel this experience is indicative of the challenges of building real relationships online, let me end this post with a good Facebook experience. About a month ago, I got a “friend” request from Ken Carroll. I had no idea who he was at the time, but in his initial request, he wrote a nice note explaining that he was the founder of ChinesePod.com, he was aware of my work, and that he wanted to connect. So I looked at his stuff and thought to myself, “Wow, this guy is doing incredible work. I’d love to learn more.”    (MR1)

I accepted his request, and we exchanged a few messages. That’s all so far. But I guarantee that there will be more to this story, whether it’s next month, next year, or longer. Maybe it will be a random bit of knowledge I cull from his Facebook page. Maybe it will be an introduction to another interesting person. Maybe it will be sharing stories over drinks. Maybe we’ll work together on something. Maybe it will be all of the above. The bottom line is that whatever happens, all it took to start was an authentic gesture.    (MR2)

Internet Identity Workshop 2007, Day Two

My big takeaway from this rendition of the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) continues to be the growing maturity of this community as well as the influx of new faces. This manifested itself in interesting ways in Open Space today. As Phil Windley noted in his excellent synopsis of the day, almost half the room stood up to propose sessions, which was quite stunning.    (M9Y)

While there were a number of interesting topics posted, most of the ones I attended were more bull sessions than work sessions. That’s not a bad thing — talk is necessary for building Shared Understanding — but you also want to make sure that the folks who are in a position to work are working. And that’s what happened. There were a lot of ad hoc, project-oriented meetings and plotting happening outside of the sessions.    (M9Z)

This is a good lesson on the nature of Open Space, especially when these gatherings occur repeatedly in a community of practice. Norms emerge and evolve. Communities go through cycles, and the Open Space experience shifts with each cycle.    (MA0)

I managed to eavesdrop on part of a conversation between Lisa Dusseault and Lisa Heft about Open Space and this conference in particular. Lisa Dusseault was bemoaning the lack of Shared Understanding among all the participants, and explained that at IETF and similar gatherings, there was always a baseline of knowledge across participants, because there were papers, and people were expected to read them ahead of time. Pre-work is not anathema to Open Space, and it’s great if you can get folks to do it. In this particular community, I think it’s possible. But you still have to be careful when considering other ways of designing for this challenge.    (MA1)

A few weeks ago, Al Selvin told me about his experiences at CHI conferences. The first time he went, he was new to the field, and it was a wonderful learning experience. The following year, he attended again, and the experience was not as good. Why? Because it was essentially identical to the previous year. People were basically the same things as they had before.    (MA2)

What’s the difference between what happens at Open Space versus most academic conferences? Co-creation — aka collaboration aka real work — is a key part of the process. People, both old and new, get together to evolve their Shared Understanding and something new and wonderful emerges from that. You have both learning and co-creation, which are really two sides of the same coin. Sadly, many conferences are all about one-sided coins.    (MA3)

I think there are ways to make the first day even more effective for new members of the community. We heard some great ideas for this at Kaliya Hamlin‘s session on this topic, and I expect her to do great things with this feedback.    (MA4)

Speaking of community, I held a session on Identity Commons. A lot of folks who have been active in the creation process participated, as did key members of our community. One of the things I wanted to make crystal clear to folks was that ultimately, Identity Commons was simply the name of this community. As it happens, this name represents both the intent and values of this community (or in chaordic speak, the purpose and principles). What’s really unique about our values is how we collaborate with each other. There is in fact a legal entity called Identity Commons, but it is extremely lightweight and open. It’s sole purpose is to manage the shared assets of this community in an open, grassroots way.    (MA5)

The organizational elements of this entity are fascinating in and of themselves. The challenge that most organizations like Identity Commons face is, how do you embrace an identity (which implies creating a boundary between you and others) while remaining open (keeping that boundary permeable and malleable). (Boundaries and identity as they pertain to leadership were major themes at the Leadership Learning Community Evaluation Learning Circle last January, yet another instance of all my different worlds colliding.) Complicating all of this is the challenge of sustainability.    (MA6)

In order to make decisions, a community must define who its members are. Most organizations define membership as some combination of vetting, voting, and payment. I believe that a pay-to-play membership model is the main source of problems most organizations like these face. It’s simply a lazy approach to sustainability. There are other ways to be sustainable without destroying the integrity of your community.    (MA7)

I could go on and on about this, and I eventually will, but not right now. The challenge we currently face is that the growth of the community outpaced the reformation of the new Identity Commons. While we were busy gaining a collective understanding of what we were trying to do, a process that took well over a year, the overall community grew on us. Now, we’re faced with the challenge of getting folks to think of this community as Identity Commons, rather than as some entity that a bunch of folks are working on. I like to call this going from “they” to “we.”    (MA8)

Conversations with folks about this today made me realize that I was overthinking the problem. (Shocker!) The problem is as challenging as it was before, but I think the solution is relatively straightforward: good ol’ fashion community-building, starting with the existing social network. As complex and multilayered as all this stuff is, I think we can keep the message simple, which will greatly aid our cause.    (MA9)

Miscellaneous thoughts from day two:    (MAA)

  • I chatted with Larry Drebes of JanRain about Pibb, and he assured me that they would be adding Permalinks soon, as well as other cool features such as export. Call me a convert. Now I’ve got to remember to talk to them about the perplog vision, and how those ideas could be integrated into Pibb to make it seriously kick butt. I’m also going to evangelize at RoCoCo (RecentChangesCamp Montreal) later this week.    (MAB)
  • I am really impressed with how much OSIS has accomplished over the past six months. Kudos to Dale Olds and Johannes Ernst for their leadership on this project, and kudos to Dale and Pamela Dingle for a really cool interop code session this afternoon. Despite some difficulties with the wireless, it looked like they got a lot of stuff done.    (MAC)
  • Brilliant move on Kaliya’s part to invite Open Space facilitator Lisa Heft to participate. She’s an outsider to this community, but she’s a wonderful observer of people, and it’s been great hearing her take on things. She’s also performing a nifty experiment which will be unleashed on everybody tomorrow afternoon.    (MAD)
  • I chatted a bit with Kevin Marks this evening about microformats and his experience as a new Googler. When I think of Kevin, I don’t immediately think Google, but he does work there now, so technically, Google was represented at the workshop. Ben Laurie, another Googler, has also been an active participant in this community. However, as much as I generally love Google, I have been extremely disappointed in its overall participation and presence in the identity community. The Google identity experience is one of the worst on the Internet, which is all the more notable when compared to its consistent track record of superior web experiences. It’s also using its own proprietary identity protocols, which is a travesty. There are good solutions to all of this, and yet, Google has thus far ignored the quality work in this community. I’d love to see Google adopt OpenID, but I’ll settle for more folks involved with identity at Google simply participating in this community.    (MAE)

Work Rhythms

I’ve been absent from this blog for almost a month, which is unusual for me. It started with my trip to Baltimore last month for Creating Space, the Leadership Learning Community‘s annual conference, and it ended with the Compendium Institute workshop last week here in the Bay Area. In the middle, I cranked away on my projects and spent some quality time with friends and family. I didn’t get much reading done, but I got a whole lot of good thinking done.    (M7Z)

Nancy White recently wrote of the challenge of balancing work and life, of the nitty gritty and the big picture:    (M80)

Because I fear that if I allow myself to be consumed by work, I will not achieve what I aspire from my work: to add value to the world. Work with a capital W. Some days lately I feel I’m tottering on a “check the box” mode of working. That is when learning stops and, to me, my ability to add value stops. It is a fuzzy line and easy to miss. It is when the quality of attention shifts. Diminishes.    (M81)

I want the shift to always be towards the side of learning, not just getting things done. Of attention and reflection, not forgetting.    (M82)

Her words resonated with me (as they often do). Last year was ground-breaking for me in this regard. For the first time since founding Blue Oxen Associates, I started to build in time for deep reflection about what I was doing and why, and about whether I was accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.    (M83)

When I was in college, I used to lift weights with a buddy of mine who was an ex-football player. We were both intense guys, and when I’d get in one of my workout grooves (not that often), we’d lift almost two hours a day, five days a week. I got much stronger pretty quickly, but I also peaked quickly as well. I blamed it on the irregularity of these workout grooves.    (M84)

My junior year of college, I started lifting with a neighbor of mine, a big guy who was fanatic about fitness. In one of our early workouts, I complained that I never seemed to get any stronger. “How often do you lift?” he asked. Upon hearing my response, he told me to shorten my workouts — three days a week, no more than 45 minutes a day. I was extremely skeptical, but I tried it, and to my surprise, it worked amazingly well.    (M85)

I’ve written previously about the cycle of thinking and doing. When you’re designing for collaboration, you need to take these natural cycles into account. Doing so usually requires a lot of discipline, especially because it requires fighting workaholic instincts.    (M86)

One of my epiphanies last year was that I wasn’t doing a good job of practicing what I preached, of living what I knew. In particular, I was getting too caught up in the nitty gritty and not spending enough time reflecting. I was getting too deeply involved in too many things, and I was overscheduling and overcommitting.    (M87)

I decided to make four major changes. First, I was going to cut down on the number of projects I would take on simultaneously. That meant saying no more often, and fighting the instinct to get deeply involved in everything I did.    (M88)

Second, I was going to cut down on the number of events I attended, especially those that required travel. Because most of the events I participate in are intense experiences (I rarely participate in networking events), I decided that I would schedule an equal amount of time for reflection. In other words, for every three day workshop, I would need to schedule three days for reflection and processing.    (M89)

Third, I was going to go on more walks. Not only is this a great way to get exercise and think, it’s a great way to think with others. It’s no coincidence that Aristotle and his followers were known as Peripatetics. Instead of constantly meeting folks in coffee shops, I started telling people to join me on walks instead, a trick I picked up from Howard Rheingold. Fortunately, San Francisco has a number of gorgeous places for short, casual hikes.    (M8A)

Fourth, I was going to spend more meaningful time with people. This nicely aligned with my walking edict, but it also meant interacting with less people overall.    (M8B)

I’ve been good about doing all four of these things. Not great, but good. As with the weightlifting, doing less still feels counterintuitive. And just as with the weightlifting, doing less has generated the desired results. This has manifested itself in a number of ways. I’ve only gone on one work trip so far this year, whereas last year, I averaged a trip a month. I’ve blogged more consistently. I feel more connected with colleages and with friends. I’ve had time to really develop ideas and projects that are core to my mission. Most importantly, I feel Less Dumb, which is one of the main tenets of The Blue Oxen Way.    (M8C)

“Learning Community” Words

Deborah Meehan led the Leadership Learning Community‘s board through a quick exercise today that was partially inspired by Gail Taylor‘s “love” experiment. She read us a quote from last year’s Creating Space conference, then asked us to write down five words we think of when we hear the words “Learning Community.” We each wrote our word phrases on Post-It notes, then proceeded to cluster our words on a large surface.    (M6L)

https://i1.wp.com/farm1.static.flickr.com/176/454816833_a28778125d_m.jpg?w=700    (M6M)

There were 12 of us participating, which resulted in a total of 62 word phrases. (I split two Post-It notes into two word phrases. One was separated by a slash, the other by “and.”) Out of those 62 word phrases, 10 were used more than once. They were (in order of frequency):    (M6N)

You can see a cloud visualization of the words we chose.    (M6Y)

Some observations:    (M6Z)

  • Only one person (me) wrote, “learning.” Only two people wrote “community.” That could have been because people assumed that they could not use those two words.    (M70)
  • No one wrote “teaching.”    (M71)
  • The value of the clustering versus the cloud visualization is interesting. The clustering exercise (which is similar to an Affinity Diagram in the usability world) is an exercise in semantic convergence. All the cloud view does is match words, character-by-character. Both tell you different things. Both are valuable.    (M72)

If we were to do this exercise again, it would be interesting to do 10 rather than five words. I think there would be more overlap in that case, although the beauty of this exercise is, one never knows. And it would be interesting to do this exercise again with the same group of people six months from now to see if the results are different.    (M73)