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President’s Corner: 7 Takeaways from the BoardSource Leadership Forum


Patton McDowell

BoardSource is a support to the global nonprofit community through its focus on governance and its offerings of trainings, resources and coaching. Their annual conference, known as the BoardSource Leadership Forum, offers dynamic speakers, networking and training on board governance. Having just received a “Save the Date” for the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Los Angeles on November 7-8, 2013, I recalled the great value of last year’s Forum in Chicago. As an experienced nonprofit professional and consultant, I was very impressed with the content and timeliness of the sessions in which I participated.

Former BoardSource President & CEO Linda Crompton noted in the program, “Change is the only constant in the nonprofit sector.” The Forum provided multiple perspectives in which participants could evaluate that reality. The most prominent question became: Is your organization adaptable and inviting conversation about change? With that in mind, here are seven other headlines and related questions from the 2012 conference:

ChangeIsGood1. Beware of the myths regarding your nonprofits’ inability to lobby. Tim Delaney, President & CEO of National Council of Nonprofits encouraged the audience with this admonition, “You can advocate; let your voice be heard. Are you sure about the limitations imposed on your organization? Surely there are issues at the local, state and federal level that need your advocacy.”

2. Understand the 4th sector and how it can impact your organization’s mission. Heerad Sabeti, Co-Founder and Convening Trustee of Fourth Sector Network shared these thoughts. Over the past few decades, the boundaries between the public (government), private (business), and social (non-profit) sectors have been blurring as many pioneering organizations have been blending social and environmental aims with business approaches. There are many expressions of this trend, including corporate social responsibility, microfinance, venture philanthropy, sustainable businesses, social enterprise, privatization, community development and others. How does this trend impact your organization?

3. Distinguish between inputs, outputs and outcomes. Steve Rothschild, Founder and Chair of Twin Cities RISE!, was challenging and inspiring in his session. While cheaper and easier may seem right at the time, beware of the temptation to only measure first two. Program participation is good in longevity. Are your clients really better off a year later?

4. Most boards are spending 70% of their time looking backward. Susan Meier, a Senior Governance Consultant for BoardSource summoned audience members to focus on the appropriate “Governance Triangle:” fiduciary, strategic, and generative activity. Good boards work on all three of these. Fiduciary is the stewardship of tangible assets, but moving from pure oversight questions to inquiry. Strategic means that planning is part of the meeting culture. The board is asking good questions like, “What is our competitive advantage? Will we be viable in 5 years?” The last area is generative. It involves framing and confronting challenges, engaging in “sense-making,” looking at challenges in a new way, suspending logic to tap intuition, and encouraging robust discourse (not quick consensus). Does your board engage in all three, or focus mostly on the fiduciary area?

5. Expand your thinking around board setup. In a plenary address, Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, gave examples from his own experience in fundraising. He asserted that a traditional board makeup limits the ability of the group. Are we recruiting board members solely for fundraising? Why not differentiate pure fundraisers as “Fellows” or “Luminaries” and shrink board’s dramatically to focus on governance and strategy (he suggests ideal boards no more than seven).

6. A nonprofit merger is more than a yes or no question. David LaPiana, Managing Partner of LaPiana Consulting, provided a new thought. Traditional thinking trains us to view mergers as an all-or-nothing proposition. In reality, at least seven variations of partnership exist for organizations willing to explore the possibilities. What other organizations serve your constituents in a similar or complementary way? How can you collaborate together to bring more impact to your community.

7. Boards must address the nonprofit leadership deficit. Kirk Kramer, a partner at the Bridgespan Group, shared a Bridgespan that study confirms this fact. The biggest issue impacting nonprofit success is a lack of leadership capacity and leadership development. While it is an overall sector issue, boards have the most ability to impact it. Do you have the talent necessary to succeed five years from now? Good organizations are pondering that question now.

As I am reminded of this time in Chicago and the upcoming conference in Los Angeles, I encourage nonprofit professionals and board members to continue the learning process and use the research available to raise the bar for your organization and the nonprofit sector.