For more than three years now I’ve served on the boards of nonprofits in a few different sectors. In 2009 I helped recruit the board for the Penn State Broadcasting Association and have served in a development capacity, spearheading a successful $25,000 endowment campaign. In 2011 Gavin Keirans shared his vision for connecting young Catholic professionals for “service, social, and community leadership” and we’ve been working on the Philadelphia Catholic League Alumni Corps since. At Fr. Chris Walsh‘s invitation I joined the board of my first established nonprofit in January, the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia where I have a media/communications focus. And in April Chris Buchignani asked me to join the founding board of The Nittany Valley Society, a Central Pennsylvania conservationist nonprofit sharing the “cultural landscape” in the same way traditional conservancies share physical landscapes.
In case it’s not clear, I’m at my ceiling for nonprofit involvement at the moment.
These four nonprofits encompass media/broadcasting, service leadership, human rights, and conservation. Of the four, three are “startup” nonprofits and two are less than a year old.
In the early years of most nonprofits an active and engaged board is especially important for success. Before you can dream about paid staff, board members sharing a common vision have got to work effectively and with urgency to share contacts, talk through both abstracts and practicals, and root the effort in firm soil.
Two things got me thinking about my experiences on these boards lately. The first was Brad Feld’s post about corporate boards: Monthly Financials, Quarterly Board Meetings, Continuous Communications. The second is Stowe Boyd’s Two Competing Narratives on his experience at Yammer’s first conference.
Brad Feld’s excellent post deals with the opportunities and expectations of modern boards — best practices just as applicable to major corporations as to nonprofits. Stowe’s post concerns the pace of communication and collaboration, which as Brad points out should generally be “continuous” at this point rather than artificially bundled into exasperatingly lengthy monthly or quarterly sessions.
Since we now live in a real-time flat world, our boards should innovate to meet these realities. Yammer has been critical to the success of this for one of the boards I’m on, and it or something like it will become standard on the other three early next year.
What’s particularly great about Yammer is that it adopts the Facebook news feed concept, meaning that correspondence and deliberation conducted form a narrative over time that new board members can engage with to understand the culture and processes of the nonprofit. This is impossible with email because the entire board is rarely engaged on every message and are not always universally copied in. With Yammer, I can choose to receive a daily, weekly, or as-it-happens alert — or receive push notifications.
This style of engagement is almost entirely alien to at least one of my boards, but understand what “continuous communication” does. It allows a board with staff to be useful and responsive to opportunities and challenges as they occur rather than play Monday morning quarterback at the next official meeting. It eliminates a lot of the work of board secretaries and the need for extensive print record-keeping. In a sense, it allows for nonprofit board members to bring their boards with them on a regular basis, and this perhaps more than anything else can determine whether the board will grow a nonprofit with real roots and fruits, because “continuous communication” quickly exposes non-performers.
I’m curious to hear from anyone involved with nonprofit boards about your experiences with the role and engagement of your boards. What’s working and what isn’t? Is the speed of your board meeting the opportunities or challenges of your field of activity?