Wrap up at Harvard

Picture of an HBS classroom

This last day of the course is short – ending at 1:15 – but lots of excellent faculty today nevertheless, so let’s get to their key ideas.

Organizational structure & mission

One of the cases today was ActionAid International. The issue was how to properly structure a global association of national charities. This structure is very common in international Christian ministry, so I imagine many of CCCC’s members have struggled with this one. The trick is to avoid a giving-receiving paternalism while ensuring that resource allocation accommodates the global mission. How much democracy should there be? What if part of the mission is executed centrally? What if there are different categories of programs within the countries that tie to the global mission? In cases like these you have the makings of a political minefield. What should the composition of the international and national boards be, and what is the role of the board when you have designed a larger structure (such as a general assembly or corporate membership) which can introduce and enact its own business to override the board?

While on sabbatical, I visited several overseas affiliates of our members, and found they all had similar arrangements. The receiving country prepares its own projects (in accord with agreed-upon international standards) and then shops them to the giving countries. When they find a country interested in investing in their project, the two countries then work out a project agreement. Both feel they are equal partners. This takes resource allocation out of the realm of the governance structure.

So the question for your board is, “Is our structure helping us achieve our mission?”

Board agendas

Board discussions should include:

  • the role of the board: some boards get confused – are they a real board or just a group of supporters? What is the work of the board anyway?
  • the business model: make sure it is sustainable and scalable
  • strategy: While staff can work out the programs, the board needs to at least address the theory of change because it provides the basis for all subsequent mission-related decisions. Ask Question Zero: What exactly are we trying to do? Knowing what this is will help the board and management distinguish between distractions and opportunities
  • CEO succession: How do we know if we have the right CEO? If we suddenly lose the CEO, who steps in? Are leaders being developed within the organization? Always remember, the board is working on the durable social value of the organization, not just as it is under the current leader. So ask the question, “Without the current leader, is the organization sustainable over the longer term?”

 Opportunities for nonprofits

Dutch Leonard says that over the next ten years, the most important gains in the social sector will be in the areas between where nonprofits are currently working. In other words, charities have picked the low hanging fruit that lies in their own sphere of activity, and the remaining low hanging fruit will require charities to work together across their narrow missions to tackle the more complex issues.

Nomenclature II

Here’s another new name, but this time with a twist. Dutch was saying that charities have their fields of expertise within the confines of their missions. And because many charities want to do their own thing, you could call them silos, but he prefers to call them “cylinders of excellence!”

 Persuasion

A crucial function of leaders is to align people with the mission, and this takes persuasion. The problem with persuasion is that we think that what persuaded us will be persuasive to others. Empathy, understanding the world from another person’s perspective, is what will give a leader insight into the arguments that will be persuasive to the particular person they are talking to.

External information

Bill Ryan, co-author of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, said that there are almost no best board practices that have been proven to correlate with board performance. Probably the best you can do is ask, “What questions should we be asking?” Two of those questions are:

  1. What’s coming toward us?
  2. What does this mean?

Both questions need to be answered by going outside of the organization and its management and doing your own research.

Last thoughts

I really am very blessed to be able to take part in a program such as this. Whether it is this particular course or one offered by another institution, I encourage all leaders, directors, CEOs, pastors, and anyone else in senior leadership, to keep challenging themselves to grow professionally and to keep stimulating new ideas by taking courses.

 

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