Nonprofit Governance Is Not Intuitive
As I frequently state and will state here: Nonprofit governance is not intuitive. Few, if any, folks are “born” to be the volunteer leadership of a nonprofit, never mind the leader of the volunteers who are governing. So what are helpful approaches to support the 99% of us for whom nonprofit governance is not intuitive?
There exists a vast array of printed, electronic and in-person (consulting and training) resources to provide guidance to those who serve in nonprofit board positions. But with the exception of the in-person consultants, teachers and/or coaches, few of these resources provide behind-the-scenes, minute-by-minute wisdom and experience necessarily nuanced for board service.
Most print resources in particular are largely prescriptive and not research-based (to provide validity), although I do want to take this moment to give a shoutout to Eugene Fram who, ahead of John Carver, offered insights and understanding about corporate governance via a dialogue in “Policy vs. Paper Clips.”
In its 2018 national survey responded to by 635 nonprofit board chairs, Alliance for Nonprofit Management learned that if there was one resource that those who are, have been or would be chairs would welcome, it would be a mentor. The rest of this column is meant to offer some thoughts about mentoring and mentors. According to the website, Skills You Need: “The original ‘mentor’ was appointed by Odysseus to act as a tutor and guide to his son Telemachus, while Odysseus was fighting in Troy. The goddess Athena appeared to Telemachus in the guise of mentor and advised him to stand up to his mother’s suitors, hence the idea of a ‘mentor’ as a guide and wise counselor.”
Skills You Need goes on to say that “mentoring, distinct from coaching, tends to focus on the future and broader skills for personal or career development, whereas a coaching relationship tends to focus on here-and-now problems. Mentoring relationships tend to be voluntary on both sides and, unlike a coaching relationship, mentoring relationships are more usually unpaid. Mentoring depends on a senior person wanting to pass on some of what they have learned to someone else who will benefit from their experience.”
BoardSource also refers to mentors who are assigned to a new board member as a resource and training “vehicle,” resulting in a “friendlier orientation process that accelerates learning particularly during the first few months.” BoardSource offers the following advice about mentoring:
“Do establish points of connection early in the relationship. Don’t assume because you serve together that you know each other. Do be sensitive to the day-to-day needs of your partner. Don’t forget to find out what else is on your partner’s plate. Do identify and utilize multiple venues for communication. Don’t rely on face-to-face interaction alone. Do set a regular contact schedule, but don’t be inflexible. Do check regularly on the effectiveness of communication. Don’t assume that the messages you are sending are being received or understood. Do talk about the effectiveness of the mentoring process. Don’t forget to evaluate learning progress.”
You are hopefully sold on seeing the value of adding a mentoring program for your board. Likely if nothing else remains, the Telemachus story will sit in your head long after reading this column (it will for me). But we are not quite done. What a mentor is and what they do are two-thirds of the story. “Where are mentors recruited?” is the final question to be
For new board members, I propose that seasoned board members, particularly if they themselves had once been mentored, will be just fine as mentors for the next “class.” But former board members might also be called upon for this task or, as one option, be recruited to prepare those who are seated and will serve as mentors for the next class — paying it forward so to speak.
Similarly, former board chairs may be called upon to support a newly seated board chair. And chairs from other boards or corporate boards might also be recruited for the task should the previous chair need at least a one-year break before stepping into the role.
From Odysseus to today, mentors have played a critical role in supporting those who take on challenges that are theirs uniquely.
Nonprofit board service and leadership are particularly unique challenges, and no one should presume that any of us come naturally prepared. But a sound mentor program must be intentional with preparation. The promise for the future: individual and institutional progress.