board service: misunderstood, vitally important

I saw this article, Three Myths About Joining a Board, written by a founder of Taproot Foundation on LinkedIn earlier this week.

Taproot has an intriguing idea, but in a nation of 300 million across 50 states, it has big name recognition with sparse presence outside a few select tier one cities. The needs for more spaces that convene people who want to give their time on a nonprofit board and the people who need more board members are tremendous.

It is a shorter complement to writing that I did last month called the why board service matters.

My original writing is below.
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Why Board Service Matters

At 26 years of age, I joined a nonprofit board for the first time. I was honored to be asked, because I had never done so and i was so young. It was a national organization focusing on youth leadership how to harness our social capital and finances to contribute to social movements. Youth, in this case, being young adults between the ages of 18-35. It was a commitment that changed my life in ways that i could never have fathomed when I signed up in the spring of 2005.
Over the course of six years, i gained life changing experiences by walking through that doorway. I tumbled into a rabbit hole once inside. What began as stumbling by learning-by-doing, proceeded to be a full-fledged rabbit hole within 15 months.

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In a little bit of math multiplication, I have served as a board member for 10.75 years over 7.5 years. I have been on two simultaneously for a few of those years. As an equation, that looks like: 6.5 + 4.25 + .5 = 10.75
Within two years, I anticipate that 10.75 will become 14.25 (i.e. 10.75 + 2 + 1.5). A numerical feat of years served over a nine year span. Gosh, I love math. How math defines, as well as provides a totally different paradigm of learning.
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The three nonprofit boards that I have been on have been the best professional development that I have had in the 12 years of my working life. That is a criticism of a nonprofit sector that has done a dismal job of investing in its most important resource, the people who make up the workforce.
My economist self notes how the nonprofit labor market has scrounged, scrimped and neglected workers of all ages. At the organizations with sizable budgets, ageism has skewed professional development dollars to bosses in middle management and the top jobs. Oddly, the people who have received the highest salaries have been the recipients of the largest professional development line items, too. That is a failure of budgeting, which is a failure in part due to decisions made and approved by board leadership.
In spite of these systemic failings of the nonprofit industry’s inability to invest in people, I have found that being on boards is the spoon, pitcher, ice cubes and lemonade stand in a work life in a sector that had given me a bounty of lemons.
Board service has been my best professional development because of what I experienced. As a board member, I have had opportunities to pursue, challenges to learn, and crunch time to attempt, in ways that were unavailable to me through a day job or other voluntary roles. This has been especially true in the nonprofit sector, where there is a culture that tells 20- or early 30-somethings that we have to pay our dues before it is our time. This cultural idiocy is what’s deflated young people’s energy along with their fresh or innovative perspectives. Our cultural norms have become so skewed that people bristling with energy and lifeforce frequently get called “hyperactive” and we’ve established norms prescribing drugs as an attempt to tame or tamper young people who go against the grain.
I’ve had multiple instances in my work life where i’ve gone against the grain, and being on boards has provided me with a safety net of peers to catch me, support me and who I still get to collaborate with regardless of the tumultuous changes in my employment. Board relationships offer alternative bonds for me as a social being, replacing coworkers when I transitioned from one job to another. There have been select work colleagues that I have maintained connection to, because I have found people that I choose to forge a voluntary bond with as a board member, rather than people that I had been obligated to be around due to day jobs.
Now-a-days, i choose to work in jobs where I am surrounded by people that i want to be around. That is a result of being more deliberate of the choices that I make, and realizing that i have the ability to choose much more than i used to believe as I could not consciously see how other subconscious choices that I had made were limiting me. That those trappings are most often self-imposed by presuming that there is no other option, when in fact there is.
As a result, I see that i have opted to work in a field that compensates me with less money on an annual basis than if i worked in another industry where i might earn more money, but also have less freedom of my time.
Furthermore, serving as a board member required that I grapple with personnel matters, understand more about benefits packages and numerous other human resources (HR) matters. Boards require taking action, in a sector that has spent inordinate amounts of time dithering, processing, doubting, analyzing, talking about and navel gazing. If a board does not act and make decisions, then an organization will falter and cease to matter as a living organism. A living, thriving, healthy, changing, adapting organization requires that decisions be made.
One reason that I credit board service with being the best investment that I have made is that i may have left the sector otherwise. The triple headed hydra of inaction, inattention and fear that causes paralysis squashes life. I’ve encountered a lot of these three bickering heads over the last 13 years in the US.
In most organizational budgets, the travel, meals and other costs associated with holding board meetings, especially for national organizations composed of people who live in different states, would be listed under board, meetings or administration. It could not be listed under professional development — although that is what it has been for me.
I distill the significant attributes of being a nonprofit board member as:

  1. being visionary, then getting out of the way of staff and volunteers who need a board to hold the larger, the bigger, the abstract.
  2. fostering trust, as the highest functioning boards are those with deep levels of trust, mutuality and interdependence.
  3. grappling with the comings + goings of money, and being more responsible for the financing side, than the functioning side.
  4. brokering relationships with a wider cross-section of people.
  5. gaining a priceless return on investment, in a practice space where learning is far greater than compensation.
  6. being a generalist, by learning that it is not just $$ + access, not just organizing or programs.
  7. moving into positions of power, by setting policies, and practicing governance and democracy.

Here are more remarks on each of these seven attributes:

1: BEING VISIONARY, THEN GETTING OUT OF THE WAY
I was astonished when I realized that being a board member meant that I was supposed to think about the big picture and then leave it to others to implement and proceed. One of the joys of board service is meeting a few times — say two or three times — a year requires that there are 4 to 6 months between reconvening. As a result, others have to make things happen in that time.
At 25 years old, i realized how i was wanted for my cognitive abilities such as my ability to listen, ask questions and make decisions with the small group of people who i was on the board with. Over the last decade, I have learned that this dynamic works best when the board and staff act as teammates on the field, with distinct roles. By having a rare presence, boards have felt like special teams in football games — that can either win or lose games, and have a tremendous effect on position and strategy for all of the plays in between.

2: FOSTERING TRUST
A board is a different sort of entity. People serve voluntarily, there is a legal obligation as the entity responsible for oversight and legal responsibilities. Furthermore, there is a type of trust fostered when people choose to make time in their lives to attend meetings and participate in organization activities.
Board functionality requires that people cultivate individual relationships with one another. To not do so, is acting as if there is no shared interest or mutual benefit to relating to one another. As large and expansive people, we have many interests that go beyond the purview of the nonprofit. There is a chance to share passions, hobbies, learning topics or phases of life with the comrades and friends that we

3: GRAPPLING WITH THE COMINGS + GOINGS OF MONEY
I focused on systems issues in my first year as a board member. But, it was a luxury because there was a necessity to have the income exceed expenses each year. We live in capitalism, after all. Being a diligent board member means that there is a vision of how to raise (or earn) the money that will keep an organization running, people paid, and pay for the expenses and bills needed to operate.

4: RETURN IS PRICELESS
Great board experiences elicit emotions of pride and affirmation, for me. Similar to what i see parents exude with their children whether at a science fair, musical performance . It is also the tiny, private moments of tying a shoelace or pronouncing syllables and sounds as we learn how to read, and the experience of wonder and amazement in the presence of moonlight or the natural world.
These are sensations that have no money value. Feelings, rather than dollars. This is why the liberating, heart-opening instances as a board member can feel like.

5: BECOMING A GENERALIST
I have seen many people step into nonprofit board roles hoping to do more of the programs and activities for the community organizations that they love. Similarly, I have seen countless people have the notion that a board member has to be a lawyer, banker or someone else who has a rolodex or cell phone full of the rich. That is not the case for many organizations, particularly those with budgets under $1M. Nor is serving on a board as simple as becoming a hyper-volunteer.

Instead, it is a combination of program and activities, noting the short-term while being mindful of the mid-range and long-term, it is an exercise in systems thinking as well as being able to hold complexity. And find a way to not be stuck, but be able to move, adapt, and be fluid.

Again, I get to feed my inner economist by nerding out over human resources, employment policies such as sabbatical policies and cash-out limits for departing employees that have not immersed my paid work. It has been through board roles that i have seen, learned and practiced the variety of ways to present cash flow, financial statements and budgets that have greatly improved how i work in my day job.

6: BROKERING RELATIONSHIPS WITH A WIDER CROSS-SECTION OF PEOPLE
In high school biology, I learned that evolution has happened as generations of plants and animals change by introducing new chromosones and traits rather than keeping a pure. I believe that boards full of miscegenating ideas, miscegenating people and miscegenating practices are more likely to evolve in order to live.
Boards that relied overwhelmingly on a single type are exposed to environmental threats that can cause the entire organism to perish. That can be the case if a board of directors consists entirely of organizers or social workers, overwhelmingly men, or if the board members depend on a single source to bring most of the information about the health and vitality of an organization. The prevalence of some characteristics bodes poorly for experimentation in the short term, as well as vitality in the long-term.

On three boards, I have met and collaborated with parents, financial advisors, designers, lawyers, anthropologists, doulas, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, and researchers. Having such a broad array of peers has provided me with instruction, insight and connection to a much larger range of professions and areas of knowledge than i have had elsewhere.

7: RISING TO NEW LEVELS OF POWER
Characteristics of power can include responsibility, privilege, force, strength, texture. By the end of my first board meeting, my notions of what it meant to be a nonprofit staff member were radically altered. In the first two-day weekend meeting, I witnessed a board member reflexively oppose the request from a long-serving, long-standing and respected staff person just because it was a new way of operating. Furthermore, he was in a outdated mindset resisting the reality that the workplace was increasingly virtual and distributed. He wanted to resist a staff request for her work to align with changes in her work life. I appreciated the opportunity to see how important investing in people is, so that I did not defer to an elder but spoke clearly to support such a request. It was the first in hundreds of moments where behaviors and attitudes can be either life-giving or -depleting.

In a different year, I have been on boards when we established policies limiting how much vacation could be carried over from one year to the next after seeing the severe impacts that employee choices have made on an organization’s finances, as well as when designing sabbatical policies for workers who pass a five-year mark. Establishing policies have been instrumental about setting some buliding blocks in place for hte future. Choices that alleviate future generations of board members from being blindsided by entities with outdated ideas around comp time that adversely affect the organization in the long run, while exacerbating the behaviors of workaholics.

Establishing policies is vital to build a stronger foundation and establish core systems that support the vitality and expansion of a living, breathing being. For me, considering what the lingering impacts of today’s decisions has been a stepping stone to wielding power and carrying the responsibilities of governance. Such practice and learning are a training ground for people in civil society who will rise into roles of governance within our lifetimes.

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