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A Child’s View of Nonprofit Board Culture

A Child's View of Nonprofit Board Culture by Li WootenAs both a mom and a consultant in the nonprofit sector, I often wonder what my world looks like to my two young children, who currently understand very little about what “mommy does.” What, for example, might they conclude about board culture if they were to venture with me into a nonprofit boardroom, where much of my work in board engagement and develop takes place?

So, I mentally stepped into their tiny shoes to think about it — the boardroom experience from a child’s eye — and identify some of the parental lessons I try to impart that might relate. Below are some of those lessons, intertwined with thoughtful questions, that you can use with your board to start the conversation about your own board culture and how it affects your ability to achieve your mission:

1. Respect each other’s personal viewpoints and space.

If you have a sibling or a close friend, or anyone who’s been in your life a significant amount of time, you know that there’s going to be times in your relationship when you disagree. Whether it’s a sibling spat or a boardroom brawl, the type of conversations and relationships you’re allowing to occur between you guides future interactions.

Are you able to disagree with a fellow board member on an issue and not hold a grudge? Are you making sure you’re putting the family — i.e., your nonprofit — first in your interactions? Are you allowing fellow board members to have differing opinions so that inquisitive discussion is taking place in your boardroom?

2. Treat each other with kindness and caring, even when we’re upset.

I have had a few occasions to participate in board meetings where people got loud — that type of loud where everyone starts talking over each other to make sure their point is getting across. We all as board members can (and should!) have strong opinions about the missions and agencies we support. It is absolutely a good thing to be passionate about your volunteer time and efforts but it is important to ask:

How are you handling getting your individual point across during heated discussion? After a boardroom disagreement, can you find a way to celebrate the lively discussion instead of use it for fodder at a later date?

3. Because I said so.

I cringed the first time I said these words as a parent. And while I disagree with one voice being prominent in the boardroom, often times this is the case. Especially if there’s a founder in the room, if there are strong personalities in the room, if there are board members with a personal connection to the mission, or if there’s a strong chief executive in place. Trust me: I’ve been all of those.

What does your organization’s board-staff partnership look like? Who are the “parents” in your boardroom? Are they working together or against one another?

4. Mind your meetings.

My children often ask me and their father how many meetings we’ve had that day. My son actually finds it a bragging point to tell us that he’s had one thousand meetings in a day! It’s laughable and cute…until you realize that this might be the way you actually feel about your own board and committee meetings.

What is your frequency of board meetings and when was the last time you examined it? Are your meetings empowering your board to meet its mission OR burning out board members? How are you making sure your board meetings are intentional and productive?

5. Move your Elf on the Shelf.

I am one of those parents who do not like — OK, hate — the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon. Outside of the overall visual creepiness (in my opinion) of the little dolls, they have led to a lot of parents putting in a lot of effort to find new and creative ways to one-up their friends on social media — er, I mean promote good behavior with their children during the holiday season. And yet there’s value to be learned from our little creepy friends. There are a lot of stakeholders in the nonprofit sector, and there is incredible opportunity to make your efforts visual, competitive and creative through technology. As ambassadors of your agency, board members have the opportunity to lead this charge.

How is your board sharing ideas and mission successes through social media? Who are your agency’s elves (i.e, who’s paying attention to the great work you do)? How are you engaging them, helping promote creativity and a healthy bit of competition by moving them to action?

This article originally appeared on BoardSource in June, 2016.

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