Operating in a Systems World – What’s a Board to Do?

Today’s nonprofit organizations operate in a systems* world. Executive Directors who appreciate this reality spend significant time in the community sitting at systems tables and engaging in collaborative initiatives. Two major drivers of this external work include ambitious organizational visions and changing funder expectations. While senior nonprofit leaders are immersed in systems level work, what is the board’s role from a governance perspective? In this blog we explore some of that ways boards can think, act and govern differently to support their organization’s systems level work.

Many charitable organizations have articulated bold visions for community change that they cannot accomplish alone. Realizing these visions requires working with other system actors – individuals and organizations –across sectors and in some cases across geographic boundaries. By extension, organizations and their boards need to understand the broader system and engage more actively beyond the boundaries of the organization.

Traditionally boards have focused internally on organizational performance, health and stewardship. Such an internal focus doesn’t necessarily enable the organization to realize a bold vision. It’s time for boards to adopt a system mindset. This begins by better understanding the broader systems that their organization is a part of, and exploring how their organization’s Beyond_the_organizationcontributions compare to, and complement, work being done by other organizations. Encouraging and supporting an organization to map service systems and actors in order to identify complementarities and duplication can be a good place to start.

Government funders are thinking more about how to improve the systems they have inadvertently created through historic funding practices. They have two significant concerns: first, many service systems are difficult to navigate, and secondly, government is unclear about its return on investment, and whether investments of public funds are making a difference. In an era of fiscal constraint, improving efficiency and effectiveness have become government mantras. Funders also want to know which organizations deliver results. Demonstrating impact based on evidence is an increasingly important aspect of sustaining funding. Part of the board’s work involves ensuring the organization allocates resources to evaluate the effectiveness of the organization’s programs and services.

Some government funders are asking grantees to consider how they contribute to systems change. Nonprofit organizations and their boards are challenged to assess what their organization, and others, do best. Many organizations, like the service systems they work in, have evolved organically, adding programs when new funding is available. This has led to diversification and a proliferation of multi-service agencies, some of which have strayed from their original mission and area(s) of expertise. In a competitive funding environment, where administration funding is scarce, some agencies rely on a patchwork of program funding to keep the lights on. This can make it difficult to acknowledge when another agency may be in a better position to take the lead on a new initiative. Yet in the interest of better system and community outcomes, organizations need to consider divesting some programs, collaborating differently, and focusing on core areas of expertise (see Wei-Skillern’s 2014 article).

Board members, as representatives of the community, may be well positioned to help an organization see itself in the context of the broader system. The board can support the organization in questioning assumptions and making tough decisions. What does the community need today? What is the organization’s core expertise? What does the organization do well?  In some sectors, such as child welfare, government has directed organizational integration to rationalize and improve access to services. More recently, the provincial government introduced a “lead agency” model in children’s mental health. This outsources the challenging task of determining how to allocate funding to lead agencies working within the system. This model may give children’s mental health agencies more input into how to improve and rationalize the service system in the interest of children and families.

Mindset shift: from a focus on the organization to a focus on cause

Individuals vary in their ability to see and think about systems in part because it’s not widely taught. Making the system visible through mapping is one way to accomplish this.  Other frameworks, processes and tools can assist people in seeing the system and shifting their focus from the organization to the issue it is trying to address.

When David Hughes was President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Canada, he shared diagrams similar to the ones below when speaking at a session in Toronto. He indicated he used these to encourage and remind his board and staff to shift their focus from the organization to the cause; and to see the organization as part of a system of actors interested in solving a common problem related to Habitat’s Mission (this reflects Freiwirth’s Community-engagement Governance framework). These visuals are highly simplified maps of system actors.


The image on the right, with the cause at the center, reflects a “Collective Impact” approach. Collective impact involves bringing actors from different sectors together to clearly define a problem and common agenda (or cause); identify bold goals and shared measures; and explore how different actors connect and make distinct contributions. This work helps all involved “see” and better understand the system(s) they are part of. This approach is being used in Canadian communities to address poverty and create vibrant communities. Collective impact relies heavily on data collection and analysis to assess what is happening in the system, determine what’s working well/less well, and to surface emerging patterns. Benefits of being part of such an initiative include access to robust information about the cause and gaining a better understanding of other actors in the system and how each is addressing the problem. If an organization participates in a collective impact initiative, as governance leaders, boards should consider a variety of questions, such as: what areas should the organization take a leadership role in? What risks might the initiative expose the organization to? What role is our organization taking in the governance of this initiative? Does a memorandum of understanding clearly define the contributions of all parties?

The image on the right identifies clients as one of the system actors or stakeholders; and Freiwirth suggests they are the primary stakeholders in an organizational system. This reinforces that boards need to find ways to understand clients’ perspective on the organization and the systems it operates in, in the interest of better meeting their needs. While some organizations survey clients periodically and share the results with the board, others engage clients more actively in organizational decision-making. Some organizations engage clients in examining issues and co-designing solutions to the challenges they experience. Other organizations recruit clients and people with lived experience onto the board to ensure their experience influences decision-making. Boards that do so generally adapt their processes and support individuals with lived experience in sharing their experience and voicing their perspectives in the boardroom, a space that is intimidating for some.

 Environmental scanning is a key tool that can help an organization, or group of organizations, identify and determine how to respond to systemic trends and forces impacting their cause. While many organizations scan the environment periodically as part of strategic planning processes, board members may be well-positioned to help an organization monitor and reflect on changes in the external environment on an ongoing basis. EDs and CEOs can share relevant information with their boards and invite boards to share their external perspectives and to anticipate the unintended consequences of proposed responses. Joint environmental scanning initiatives can be particularly efficient and effective in helping organizations understand the system Diverse boardas they benefit from the knowledge, information and perspectives of different system actors (our blog EnviroScan21 describes such a process). A board might host a joint symposium where the boards of different agencies can collectively explore the results and implications for different organizations and the system.

In a systems world boards have an important role to play in helping an organization focus on and understand the broader system. Some of the board’s work involves engaging with others in the community who share common cause. It is also about having different conversations in the boardroom –inviting all to focus on the cause and the system.


What critical conversations and questions do boards need to engage in related to governing in a systems world? The sample questions below are crafted for organizations that are just starting out, and those that are actively engaged in this process.

Fiduciary (oversight) Strategic (insight) Generative (foresight)
Do we have the skills, knowledge and resources to govern in a systems world? What do we need to learn more about?
What due diligence and risk analysis should we do before entering into collaborative initiative?What might be the opportunity cost of moving in this direction?
Who shares common cause with us that might help us accomplish our vision?

Who would benefit from our adopting a stronger systems orientation?

To what extent will participating in this collaborative initiative help us shift the system and meet our organizational goals?

What is our unique contribution?

What spaces might we create or participate in to engage others in thinking about the system?

How might we govern from the bottom up? Who else needs to have a role in governance and how might we engage them?
How might we govern with the system at the center?As the systems we work in become more integrated, how might we need to adapt our approach to governance?

*Definitions of “system”

“A system is a configuration of interaction, interdependent parts that are connected through a web of relationships, forming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Holland, J. (1998) From Chaos to Order. Addison-Wesley.)

“Systems are composed of multiple components of different types, both tangible and intangible. They include, for example, people, resources and services, as well as relationships, values, and perceptions.” (p. 7, Abercrombie et. al, 2015).

Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong, VISION Management Services

Recommended resources and references

A framework for evaluating systems initiatives. Build strong foundations for our youngest children. Julia Coffman. August 2007.

Collective impact. John Kania and Mark Kramer. Stanford Social Innovation Review, December 2010.

Engagement governance for system-wide decision making. Judy Freiwirth. Nonprofit Quarterly, Summer 2007.

In collaboration actions speak louder than words. Jane Wei-Skillern. Stanford Social Innovation

The Networked Nonprofit. Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2008Review, Spring 2014.

System mapping: A guide to developing actor maps. Srik Gopal, Tiffany Clarke. FSG publication. December 2015.

Systems change: A guide to what it is and how to do it. Rob Abercrombie, Ellen Harries and Rachel Wharton. New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) for the LankellyChase Foundation. June 2015

The Systems Thinker – online magazine: https://thesystemsthinker.com/

Vibrant Communities initiative: http://www.vibrantcommunities.ca/

O Leader, where art thou?

We have been talking about succession planning* in anticipation of mass leadership transitions for nearly a decade in the nonprofit sector. When the subject arises, rather than pushing the panic button we tend to shrug our collective shoulders. How concerned do we really need to be? Numbers from “Shaping the Future – Leadership in Ontario’s Nonprofit Labour Force” are telling:

Nonprofit sector leaders
are between 45-64 years of age                                                                                  72% are women                                                                                                           73% have a bachelor of arts or more (30% have a professional degree, master’s or PhD)                                                                                                                              79% earn less than $100,000/year

Succession_leaderIn 2013, only 34% of organizations had a succession plan in place. That year, 55% of management hires came from within the nonprofit sector. Although 63% of organizations identify high performers, 44% of organizations reported losing high performers due to a lack of leadership opportunities. Perhaps more concerning, 27% of qualified internal candidates indicated they would NOT be interested in taking on the top job, a role that many associate with stress, overwork, burdensome administration, and under-compensation.

When the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) begins to think/talk about retirement, leadership transition planning should be underway. The information above could inform an organization’s approach to succession planning and leadership transition.

Nancy Axelrod urges boards to take a broad and integrated view of leadership succession planning. She notes that it, “Is not only about determining your organization’s next leader, it is a continuous process that assesses organizational needs, and creates a climate for an executive to succeed. An effective succession plan is linked to the organization’s strategic plan, mission and vision…”

What’s an organization/board to do?

At the system level, boards and leaders need to make leadership in the nonprofit sector more attractive to next generation leaders. This requires gaining a better understanding of what appeals to and motivates leaders from inside and outside the sector. Negative perceptions about various aspects of the role suggest the structure of organizational leadership might need rethinking, so that incoming leaders can succeed in demanding, multidimensional CEO roles.

At the organizational level, boards need to ensure that leadership skills and critical competencies are developed and nurtured throughout the organization. Strategic plans often highlight key skills and talents related to the implementation of strategic priorities. These competencies might be developed internally and/or recruited externally.

Three_optionsRThree options

Hiring the right CEO is one of the most critical governing responsibilities any board undertakes. Boards must think carefully about what stage of development their organization is at and what type of leader they’re looking for – an innovator, builder, maintainer, transformer and/or collaborator?

Faced with the prospect of replacing a CEO, the board invests significant time and effort considering and implementing one of three options: hiring from within, hiring from without, or using the transition as an opportunity to restructure the organization and acquire a new CEO through integration. Considerations associated with each option are outlined below.

Hire from within

Opting to promote someone from within the organization to replace a CEO might be informed by several criteria. Organizations that are values-driven, effective and have a clear sense of their future would more likely sustain their trajectory by promoting an internal candidate. Often these organizations have been deliberate in using succession planning as a way to cascade values throughout the organization and to evaluate and develop staff (e.g. through formal training, special projects, mentoring). Key positions and related competencies are identified along with staff who have or can develop requisite competencies.

Boards of larger organizations sometimes encourage their CEO to groom/mentor a successor. A challenge inherent in this approach is board turnover; when the time comes, different board members may decide not to appoint the internal successor. This shift in approach may cause resentment in the person who was groomed but passed over. Some of these individuals, who are expected to mentor the new CEO, subsequently leave the organization and the investment the organization made in their development is lost.

In contrast, smaller organizations that lack the resources and capacity to offer professional development and internal promotion opportunities may be forced to look externally. These organizations may be the beneficiaries of the investments larger organizations have made in internal leadership development.

Hire from without

Most boards opt to open up the recruitment process to external candidates for comparison; after all, what if the best candidate is actually out there? Organizations are often overwhelmed by the volume of applications – from qualified and unqualified applicants. Those agencies that can afford to, often hire an executive search firm to conduct a professional search.

When a strategic plan outlines the need for transformational change, hiring from without may be a compelling option. Outsiders bring fresh eyes, different perspectives and experiences and may find it easier to introduce major changes since they are less invested in an organization’s history. Boards need to ensure that in addition to bringing a vision and creative ideas, the new leader has experience in change management.

Restructure the organization

Pressures to reduce duplication, integrate and amalgamate are decreasing the number of organizations in the nonprofit sector. As smaller agencies increasingly struggle to meet growing expectations for accountability, some amalgamate with larger agencies while others engage in joint ventures to deliver programs collaboratively.

Leadership transition presents boards with an opportunity to reflect on sustainability, the organization’s place in the broader system, and whether the agency should consider some form of integration. Boards sometimes appoint an interim CEO, to afford them the time and space to explore whether integration might prove the best way forward.

Leadership_transitionLeadership Transition

No matter what option is chosen, the board needs to play a more active role throughout the leadership transition process from recruitment to the end of a probationary period. The board and organization would benefit from bringing clarity to the direction of, and approach to, a change in leadership. After the appointment of the new CEO (with or without integration), the board’s work must continue in earnest. Well before the new CEO is appointed, the following strategies can be implemented to facilitate a successful leadership transition:

  • Define a shared leadership approach between the board and CEO as the foundation for a productive long-term relationship
  • Clarify the decision-making role of the CEO and the delegation of power from the board to the CEO
  • Consider what an effective change management process would look like to ensure a smooth transition with minimal disruption to services, clients and staff
  • Create a healthy and nimble culture characterized by open and honest communication.

Being proactive in creating a succession plan and process for leadership transition reduces the panic when the CEO announces his/her imminent departure. Be prepared to answer “O leader, where art thou?”


What critical conversations and questions do boards need to engage in related to succession planning and leadership transition? The sample questions below are crafted for organizations that are just starting out, and those that are actively engaged in, succession planning.

Fiduciary (oversight) Strategic (insight) Generative (foresight)
What kind of succession plan is in place? Is turnover anticipated in the next 2-3 years?

Can we afford to hire a recruitment firm?

How competitive is our salary scale – can we attract the leader we need?


What competencies do we need to move the organization forward in alignment with our strategic plan? Or to introduce a new strategy?

Should we be looking internally to maintain our organizational culture and strategy, or externally to introduce change and challenge our assumptions?

How important is it that the individual is highly aligned with our organization’s values and vision?

How might we restructure the CEO position? Do we need someone full-time?

Does this represent an opportunity for organizational restructuring, divestment or integration? Is there a leader at another organization we admire?

How far can we reach to recruit the skills we need – e.g. recruiting out of province/country?

What other opportunities for renewal does this represent?

*Definition: “Succession planning is an ongoing and strategic process…to identify, and then meet, the future requirements of the organization by preparing candidates who will become equipped with the necessary competencies to excel in a job.

Where no current employee has the potential to succeed in the intended role, the organization will create contingency plans (e.g. a budget for executive search services) as part of its succession management strategy to hire qualified people who currently do not work for the organization.”  Succession Planning, Jack Shand, 2009.

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services

Recommended resources and references

“Companies Need Not Hire Outside CEOs to Stimulate Fundamental Change”. Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras. 1994

“Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership”. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation. 2011

“Executive Transition Initiative”. Greater Milwaukee Foundation. 2006

Managing Leadership Transition for Nonprofits. Barry Dim, Susan Egmont, Laura Watkins. Pearson Education, Inc. 2011

“Nonprofit Executive Succession-Planning Toolkit”. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. 2009

“Shaping the Future: Leadership in Ontario’s Nonprofit Labour Force”. The Mowat Centre and University of Toronto. September 2013

Succession Planning: Succeeding at Succession. Jack Shand, Canadian Society of Association Executives, 2009

From good to great: Board evaluation

Governing, like managing, is neither an art, nor a science – it’s a practice*. An effective way to build governance skills is to reflect, assess, do differently and repeat. Board evaluation represents a process that helps board members enter this cycle. Especially if the process is well-designed.

One of the board’s core responsibilities is to build and sustain an effective governing body. To this end, conducting regular board evaluations is widely recognized as a governance best practice. It provides an opportunity to orient or remind board members of key roles and responsibilities, assess performance, celebrate success, and identify strategies for improvement.

While more boards are evaluating themselves and in some cases the performance of individual board members, not all processes succeed in moving the board from good to great performance. The process itself is often to blame, as many methods exemplify three common flaws.

Meaurement_manFirst, the majority of processes rely strictly on self-assessment surveys: board members are asked to rate the board, themselves or their peers on a variety of dimensions. While self-reporting engages board members in a reflective process, well-intentioned board members are not always prepared to constructively critique their own, or the board’s collective performance. Ratings generally tend to be overwhelmingly positive, with the odd outlier. Evaluations that solicit input from other organizational stakeholders, such as the senior management team, can provide an alternate perspective or reality check.

Secondly, few evaluation tools ask respondents to provide evidence to support their ratings. Instead, ratings generally rely on board members’ memory and perceptions of what the board has/has not done. Steve Bowman of Conscious Governance recommends conducting governance ‘audits’ alongside evaluation processes to assess if the board has in fact developed, implemented and adhered to key policies and practices (see Related Resources at end). In conducting these audits, he has often discovered a significant gap between what the board thinks, or states, it has done (e.g. maintaining up-to-date policies, conducting a risk assessment) and the evidence to support these assertions.

Last but not least, many board evaluation processes conclude with a cursory discussion of the data gathered, without determining how the board will act on the results. If commitments are not made to do differently and address performance gaps, the investment in evaluation delivers a limited return. Determining up front what the board is prepared to invest in in terms of follow up action is important, and translating actions into a board workplan or development plan is critical. Only then can the board be held accountable.

Key Design Considerations

Every evaluation process requires leadership. Rather than leaving the task to a single champion like the board chair, it can be a great project for a task force or governance committee. This group, with support from the CEO and other board members, can define the scope of, manage and promote the process.

A board’s interest in evaluation, reflection and learning is reflective of its culture. Having an honest conversation early on about the focus, potential benefits and how much time, energy and other resources to invest contributes to success.

InterviewIn addition to surveys, other data collection options warrant consideration. These include one-on-one interviews, focus groups, or group dialogues all of which enable the interviewer or facilitator to explore specific responses in more depth.

Multiple tools and templates for board evaluation are available online and they’re a great place to start. We recommend tailoring standard surveys so that they speak to a board’s specific questions and concerns – e.g. in addition to roles and responsibilities, your board may want to evaluate participation, contribution, governance structures, systems and processes.

Depending on available resources, a board may take a do-it-yourself approach or seek external support. An external consultant can help design and/or administer the process. A neutral party can assist a board in analyzing results and determining how to act on them.


What critical conversations and questions would help overcome common flaws and design an evaluation process in a way that will move the board from good to great?

Fiduciary (oversight) Strategic (insight) Generative (foresight)
  • What are our objectives for a board evaluation process? Do we want to focus on the board as a whole as well as individual directors?
  • What kind of process would enable us to achieve our objectives? What tools could we use to gather evidence-informed feedback?
  • How might others evaluate our performance – what measures might they use? Who else might we ask to evaluate the Board?
  • What dimensions and aspects of governance should we evaluate? What do we need to know about how we’re governing to know we can support our strategic directions and mission impact?
  • How might we assess the difference we’ve made as a board? What are other boards doing that we could learn from?
  • Acting on the results: What changes will we make – e.g. to our processes, structure, composition, focus? What do we need to ‘go to school on’ (individually or as a board)?
  • Do we really need to examine our performance… isn’t measuring organizational results and impact the most important outcome?
  • How might a board evaluation carried out by the senior management team and/or clients contribute to a deeper understanding of our performance?
  • If boards are expected to hold a big-picture perspective, how can we evaluate our role in the broader system?
  • How can we turn evaluation into a stimulating game?

The reward

We’ve seen well-designed evaluation processes deliver greater clarity around roles and responsibilities, engage board members more actively, result in more productive board meetings, and improve collaboration between the board and CEO.

Embedding evaluation into the board’s ongoing work

If your board is genuinely committed to continuous learning, in addition to engaging in an evaluation process, we recommend experimenting with the following strategies:

  • Make time at the end of board and committee meetings to reflect on one aspect of the meeting and identify ideas for improvement – e.g. agenda design, participation, decision-making process.
  • Ask each board member to identify one high and one low point experienced at the meeting.
  • Conduct mini evaluations of board contributions – e.g. after a significant organizational event, after a task force completes its work, after a major challenge has been addressed.

On the Horizon

Some boards are high performing because they have the “right people on the bus in the right seats” (Collins, 2006). Would you consider evaluating individual board members and the leadership of the board? Some boards have been doing just that, conducting peer-to-peer evaluations. Board members are asked to evaluate one another on a number of dimensions such as: “makes appropriate and meaningful contributions informed by his/her knowledge and skills”. A neutral facilitator and confidential feedback conversations are key components of effective peer-to-peer evaluation processes.

The executive or governance committee might use the results of such an evaluation to inform decisions about renewing appointments and officer selection. Early adopters are continuing to experiment with and refine this evaluative approach to move their boards from good to great.

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo

*Henry Mintzberg made this point in his book “Managing”.

Recommended resources and references

35 Questions that will transform your board. Society for Nonprofit Organizations. Nonprofit World Volume 24, Number 3, May/June 2006.

Board Evaluation: Creating Strategic Performance and Effectiveness (Board Guru Handbook) by Tracy E. Houston, 2012.

Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A monograph to Accompany Good to Great. Jim Collins, Harper Business, 2006.

“How Good is our Board?” How Board Evaluations Can Improve Governance. Tim Plumptre, Institute On Governance, 2006.

Individual director evaluations: The next step in boardroom effectiveness. Jay A. Conger and Edward Lawlor III. Ivey, 2003.

Managing. Henry Mintzberg, Barrett-Koehler Publishers. 2011.

The Problem with board evaluations. Steve Bowman, Conscious Governance Online, 2008.

CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS: inquiry, insight, impact


Non-profit boards come in three flavours: those that are neutral, passively sitting on the sidelines cheering the organization on; those that do more harm than good, damaging an organization through dysfunction or conflict; and those that take the organization to the next level, contributing vision and value. Boards, with all their strengths and flaws, will continue to be with us as they are legally mandated to oversee and be accountable for organizational performance.

Boards exist in a state of dynamic tension. How could they not – when they bring together individual board members from different perspectives, backgrounds and sectors; and then ask them to meet the often conflicting expectations of funders, donors, clients, legislators, staff and community?

In the last few decades academics, consultants and CEOs have weighed in on the need to enhance the effectiveness of the board’s work and the quality of board members. During this period the nature and focus of the board’s work has changed and expectations have grown. In the past, boards focused internally on establishing and growing an organization. Boards today are expected to act as stewards, direction-setters, champions, and to serve as the accountability body. The board is also expected to connect the organization to various communities and to be aware of the broader system and the organization’s contribution within that system.

Today’s board members are diverse, intelligent and passionate. We argue that ‘critical conversations’ can be used to access and engage diverse talents within the boardroom and assist the board in fulfilling its multi-faceted role.

Leading strategist Henry Mintzberg, when asked about the value of boards, likened them to “bumblebees buzzing around the heads of CEOs” (Governance as Leadership, p. 28). CEOs must attend to the buzzing… and focusing the buzz on critical topics improves the conversation.

Critical Conversations

The power of conversation should not be under-estimated as a vehicle through which boards can reach sound decisions, add value, and exercise leadership.

In their book Governance as Leadership, Chait, Ryan and Taylor introduced the ‘fiduciary’, ‘strategic’ and ‘generative’ as three modes of governance that boards must engage in to fulfil their various roles and responsibilities. These modes begin to frame critical conversations.

In the fiduciary mode (oversight), the board focuses on the stewardship of assets – e.g. the efficient use of resources, fiscal accountability, risk management and the operational oversight.

In the strategic mode (foresight), the board acts as strategist in partnership with senior staff. In this mode the board thinks and acts strategically – e.g. setting direction and planning for the future. This involves monitoring the changing environment, and considering the implications for the organization.

The generative mode (insight) is about sense-making, framing and reframing problems, questioning assumptions and creative thinking.

Many boards tend to focus their discussions at the fiduciary and strategic levels, but in today’s volatile and uncertain environment, employing all three modes is crucial to helping the board and organization understand and respond to complex issues.

conversationFocused inquiry driven by powerful questions engages the three modes, accesses diversity of thinking and uncovers new strategies to solve persistent problems. One non-profit CEO described the value of one board member’s persistent, insightful questions as causing her to “sharpen her pencil” and arrive better prepared for board meetings.

This blog series is designed to orient board members and senior leaders to critical topics that are not always addressed during regular board meetings. The topics we have selected are informed by powerful conversations we have facilitated with different clients over the years. These topics are ‘critical’ because they have implications for organizational impact and sustainability, and support the board in fulfilling its leadership and stewardship roles.

Engaging in these conversations, individual board members develop the knowledge and skills to serve as ambassadors, enhance their generative thinking capacity, and acquire a clearer line of sight between their governance work and mission results.

At the organizational level the conversations generate more nuanced understanding of external trends and forces, implications and opportunities; new insights into problems and assumptions; and innovative strategies. An organization’s ability to continuously adapt and evolve leads to greater resilience and mission impact. Finally, a board that makes a difference attracts and retains quality, committed board members.

The Series

“Critical Conversations in the Boardroom” provides a framework for designing meaningful conversations that will add value to an organization. In each post we present the context and rationale for each topic, identify sample fiduciary, strategic and generative questions boards can use to design powerful and engaging conversations as well as related resources (e.g. articles, books and tools).

Question types

Questions fuel conversations, and developing powerful questions is a craft. Powerful questions are simple, clear, thought-provoking, energize a group, surface assumptions, and expand possibilities (Brown et al, 2002). They invite inquiry and discovery and require a group to engage ‘both/and’ thinking. They engage the board in discussions that are meaningful on multiple levels, engaging heads and hearts.

In some cases, the conversations lead to decisions, while in other cases, the conversation is an end in itself. The purpose may be to engage different perspectives and expand collective understanding. The chart below highlights how each mode can be accessed through different kinds of questions.

Fiduciary oversight mode

Strategic foresight mode

Generative insight mode

Questions focus on

  • Exploring the facts… there may be a financial or sustainability dimension
  • Monitoring of performance or compliance
  • Developing, reviewing or assessing adherence to policies
Questions focus on

  • Developing strategies to leverage internal strengths or address weaknesses
  • Identifying and analyzing the implications of changes in the external environment
  • Determining how to respond to emerging challenges and opportunities
Questions focus on

  • Clearly defining and making sense of a problem
  • Surfacing and questioning assumptions
  • Crafting both/and solutions to complex problems


Making Time for Critical Conversations

We know board agendas are often jam-packed leaving limited time for in-depth discussion. Some boards make time for conversations that matter by using a ‘consent agenda’ to package and receive regular reports in one motion. Consent agenda items are distributed to board members as part of the board package for review, and are not discussed during the meetings, unless the board requests a discussion. Two articles below describe consent agendas and considerations for using them.

We hope you will consider the topics we’ve outlined and make time for critical conversations. The sample questions we will be providing can be adapted to your own situation and build your board’s fiduciary, strategic and generative thinking capacity. We can hear the bumblebees buzzing.

Post 1: “To give or not to give” is not THE question: Boards and fundraising

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services

Recommended Reading

Consent agenda. David Renz, A Board Resource Tool from the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership.

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor. Wiley. 2004.

Governance as leadership: an interview with Richard P. Chait. Great Boards, Summer 2005. Bader & Associates Governance Consultants.

Moments of Impact – How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change. Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon. Simon &Schuster 2014.

On Dialogue. David Bohm. Routledge, 2nd edition, 2004.

Strategic questioning: engaging people’s best thinking. Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, Eric Vogt and Nancy Margulies. The Systems Thinker. Vol. 13, No. 9. November 2002.

The consent agenda: A tool for improving governance. BoardSource 2006.

“To Give or not to Give” is not THE Question: Boards and fundraising

As stewards responsible for an organization’s financial sustainability, the board’s contribution to fundraising is a critical conversation. The board has a variety of roles to play in relation to fundraising, and we pose fiduciary, strategic and generative questions (to learn more about these, see our first post in the CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS series) to stimulate the board’s understanding of this responsibility.

moneybagsHistorically many non-profit organizations recruited board members for their ability to “give or get” money. As organizations matured and their funding sources stabilized, organizations started to recruit board members for their talent, time and diverse perspectives, including service users who may not be in a position to give substantial amounts. Expectations that board members make a personal contribution diminished for government funded organizations. Some board members believe they contribute their time and talent in lieu of a financial gift.

Today, when government funding doesn’t cover program and operational costs, the expectation that board members contribute financially has been revived. Foundations and major donors look at board giving rates as an indication that the organization’s leadership is confident and fully invested in the work being done.

According to a recent US survey by BoardSource, approximately 68% of non-profit organizations have articulated a “board giving” policy. Board giving policies often include an expectation that each member contributes an amount they consider generous or personally meaningful – i.e. each according to their means. Many boards aim for 100% participation rates and report their participation rates to funders. A survey conducted by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative in 2013 found that board giving had increased in 47% of the organizations surveyed.

In addition to making personal contributions, boards have other roles to play in supporting organizational fundraising efforts – e.g. events, direct mail and capital campaigns, major gifts and bequests, and corporate sponsorships. Roles include attending fundraising events and meeting with key funders. Board members can more easily set aside time to lend their support at one or more events during the year if staff maintain a calendar of events. When it comes to gifts and bequests, with appropriate tools and support, board members can promote these options in their communities.

Donor_callPenelope Burk of Cygnus Applied Research has investigated why donors give. One practice she recommends to boards is a “1-minute thank-you call”. Board members follow up on recent donations with a very brief phone call to thank the donor on behalf of the organization. Although no additional request for donations is made, donors who receive a simple thank-you from a senior volunteer tend to make another gift sooner than they might otherwise have done, and the size of their subsequent gifts tends to increase.

Board members’ personal and professional networks are a vital resource in an organization’s fundraising efforts. Inviting members of their networks to fundraising events has long been an expectation of board members. Today, board members’ networks can also be helpful for an organization that is seeking to establish corporate sponsorships and partnerships. When an organization embarks on this kind of fundraising strategy, sharing who you know expands the opportunity pool.

Board members with skills in fundraising and communications can be key assets on a board. Not only can they provide an outside perspective to staff, they can educate fellow board members about fundamentals of fundraising. Strategic recruitment of board members is one way for a board to access these skills.

Critical Conversations

We know that every board is at a different stage when it comes to involvement in fundraising. The questions below are presented as possible topics for the board to explore through dialogue. We recommend a board set aside approximately 30-60 minutes to explore several questions.

Distributing an article related to the topic in advance can be useful in priming board members for the conversation – we’ve identified some recommended articles and books below. The questions in each mode engage the board in a different kind of thinking, so consider mixing and matching to engage the board in a substantive dialogue.

Fiduciary Questions Strategic Questions Generative Questions
  • What funding model(s) does our organization use? (see related resource below, “Ten Non-profit Funding Models”)
  • Are our fundraising vehicles – e.g. events, direct mail, capital campaigns – delivering a positive return on investment?
  • What’s our board giving policy? Where are we in relation to our targets?
  • Which board members need to be involved in which funding-related events? What role should they play?
  • Who (i.e. people, corporations, associations) are we connected with that might support our organization in some way? E.g. as corporate sponsors, material resources?
  • What other sources of funding might we pursue? What role might the board play in growing this type of funding?
  • How might we inspire people to give us money without asking them directly?
  • What assumptions do we each have about fundraising… and how do these limit our collective success?
  • How might a person with limited money but extensive networks help us access substantial funds?

Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong, VISION Management Services

Related resources

  1. Board members and the art of saying thanks. Interview with Penelope Burk by Jay Blossom. IN TRUST. Summer 2013.
  2. Finding Your Funding Model, by Peter Kim, Gail Perreault, &William Foster. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Fall 2011.
  3. Nonprofit Fundraising Study – Covering charitable receipts at Nonprofit organizations in the United States and Canada in 2013. Nonprofit Research Collaborative, March 2014.
  4. Ten Nonprofit Funding Models, by William Landes Foster, Peter Kim, & Barbara Christiansen.Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2009.
  5. The Power of a Case for Support. Nell Edgington, Social Velocity.

Toward Participatory Governance? Launch of a Solutions Lab at MaRS in partnership with the Ontario government

The Ontario government has partnered with MaRS to launch a ‘Solutions Lab’. Assistant Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Katherine Hewson, at the ONN Conference in September 2012, noted that part of the intention of such an initiative is to put clients at the centre of government services.

This signals a shift toward a more participatory approach to governance. Social Innovation Labs like this have been implemented in other countries to change the way public policy and/or public services are developed; SiG at Waterloo provides a helpful description. It’s about the co-creation of solutions WITH citizens.

Christian Bason, of MindLab in Denmark, presented on MindLab’s innovation work within the Danish government at MaRS in June 2011. It was a compelling story – you can view his presentation here: http://vimeo.com/23657554. Bason noted he was also in Canada to meet with the Ontario government to share his experience with them… apparently they liked what they heard. Bason’s book, Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society is a great source of practical advice on how to apply design principles and work with end-users to develop innovative and impactful solutions to social problems.

Participatory governance and co-creation of solutions have applications for organizations and the way they govern and do their work. In terms of governance, this involves engaging the communities served in the decision-making of your organization. For organizations serving marginalized populations or youth, this may require the provision of support in the form of education, mentorship and changing the way the board engages in and beyond the boardroom. Creating an environment that is comfortable for those who could otherwise be intimidated means ensuring they are not a singular voice, and actively encouraging them to share their perspectives on different issues. Engaging this diversity at a governance level will lead to richer discussions and different decisions.

A number of marginalized groups have adopted the term ‘nothing about us without us’ – and this speaks to their interest in participating more actively in shaping decisions about services. Beyond governance, engaging those you serve in the design and evaluation of your services is another path to greater participation and innovation.

Ruth and Sandi


  • Why might your board, staff, community and clients get excited about a more participatory approach to governance and/or program design?
  • How could a more participatory approach lead to greater innovation?
  • What could your board do differently to share decision making more widely?