Discover Introspection and Self-Improvement Via a Board Totem Pole Process
Most often produced by Northwest Indigenous people, totem poles are art, craft and spiritual symbols. Traditionally these structures, according to Indigenous Foundations “represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people or events.”
In 1987, a psychotherapist named Eligio Stephen Gallegos developed a concept he labeled “the personal totem pole process.” Taking from the concepts correlated to his recognition of the role and purpose of totem poles, Gallegos, based on my understanding, developed a unique approach to supporting individuals on their self-reflection, comprehension and growth journeys.
And what does a personal totem pole have to do with nonprofit boards? I believe that boards can be well-represented as an entity in the form of a totem pole. Boards might even improve their understanding of and effectiveness as a body by spending some time and energy on developing their own board totem pole.
Developing a Board Totem Pole Process
A board totem pole process can be achieved with little or no advance research. Members, gathered in one of those timeouts away from the regular business of boards, could begin the conversation by identifying what animals best represent the board. Simple internet searches could clarify specific animal characteristics to simplify the discussion, reduce discussion length and improve the potential for reaching consensus.
One caveat: Multiple animals must be included and reflected in a whole board totem pole to attempt to capture all the characteristics reflected in the work and composition of the board. Many Indigenous people have adopted the practice of having nine animals per totem to better capture the range and nature of the whole person, or, in this case, the whole board.
Those gathered will complete this exercise best if they fully understand what each chosen animal represents in terms of characteristics, strengths and limitations. The goal of this exercise is to reach an understanding about who is the board collectively at this given moment in time and determine what, if anything, to do differently.
Following the session, one or more board members might venture, depending on their level of creativity, reflect on the discussion by drawing a totem — or even creating a totem out of paper rolls — that contains the animals that were agreed upon as what this board represents and how it functions.
Board Totem Pole Example
For fun and practice, I am offering the following animals attributing a few characteristics.
- Cheetah. We get through business meetings really fast, paying attention only when required. We see our world as we pass by taking credit for all that is accomplished (by staff).
- Giraffe. We know our place in the world and work steadily to pursue our mission.
- Eagle. We are proud, defiant and determined — always considering the whole picture while pursuing our mission.
- Salmon. We often swim upstream despite the challenges but are confident we will get to where we want to be.
- Turtle. We, the board, plod along getting nowhere with little speed staying in our shell unless something requires immediate action and even then, speed is not of the essence.
These are, of course, a small sampling of the 8.7 million species currently counted on planet Earth. But inclusion of every creature is not the point as much as claiming a species that best represents the life and actions of the board.
Building a board totem pole can be a fun, team-building and insightful experience. I believe that the learnings from this activity, paired with an understanding of fiduciary duties, Theory of Change, stage of development and even the annual board assessment should provide enough data to guide and inform the governance committee and board as it looks to its future.
It is possible to expect that the board’s experience with this exercise might be so positive and insightful enough for the board, perhaps during strategic planning, to reconsider and reconstruct its board totem pole to reflect changes made since its previous effort.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.