In Episode 42 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Marla Bobowick discuss:
Marla Bobowick is an independent consultant based in Washington, DC, has served as a Senior Governance Consultant for BoardSource since 2008, and is also a Standards for Excellence® licensed consultant. She has more than 30 years of nonprofit experience and a history of creative problem solving. Specializing in nonprofit management and leadership, she has extensive experience with board governance, strategy, and publishing. She has worked with nonprofit organizations of all types and sizes, including regional healthcare and social service providers, educational institutions (independent schools and colleges and universities), family and other private foundations, and local and national offices of federated organizations and professional associations. Previously, Marla was Vice President of Products at BoardSource, where she oversaw publications, online products, and research. During her tenure at BoardSource, she was an active consultant and trainer, developed educational curriculum, managed regional capacity building projects, oversaw the global program, and coordinated the annual conference. While at BoardSource, Marla managed Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices. She was also a member of the working group for The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards (BoardSource © 2005). She managed “Governance Futures: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Governance,” a multiyear research project that culminated in publication of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (John Wiley & Sons © 2005). She is co-author of Assessing Board Performance: A Practical Guide for College, University, System, and Foundation Boards (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges © 2018). Previously, Marla was an acquisitions editor at John Wiley & Sons, where she developed Wiley’s Nonprofit Law, Finance, and Management Series and the Association of Fundraising Professionals Fund Development Series. Marla holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Amherst College, a master’s degree in business administration and a certificate in nonprofit management from Case Western Reserve University. She is a past board chair of Maryland Nonprofits and a past board member Calvary Women’s Services.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Marla Bobowick. Marla and I talk about the misconceptions that people have about nonprofit boards and governance, why shared leadership and governance is important to strive for, and why boards needs to shift their focus from hindsight to foresight Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Welcome Marla, welcome to the podcast.
Marla Bobowick: Thanks for inviting me. This'll be fun.
Carol: So I like to start by asking folks what drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Marla: I fell in love with the nonprofit sector by accident. I love being involved with people who are absolutely passionate about what they do and believe in it and get to live and act and work their values and passions. And I wanted to be surrounded by people like that. And my passion is the nonprofit sector and making it work better, which is a little wonky, but that's what I do. Yeah. The most people, when they think of the nonprofit sector, I think they, they think of that direct, direct service or, or, working on the front lines, but there's so many layers and I've often felt that I was a couple layers removed from, from those frontline folks, but it's all important work.
Carol: Your work focuses on nonprofit board governance, which is obviously very key. What would you say is the most common misconception about nonprofit boards?
Marla: Of course, I always think there's more than one answer to questions like this, which is, I think it's two extremes. It's either the board thinks they have all the power or they think they have none of the power and same from the CEO executive director point of view. And so. Undoing that misconception because I really believe in a notion of shared leadership and a governance partnership is forcing people to challenge a lot of their implicit or explicit assumptions.
Carol: And where do you think those two extremes come from?
Marla: I think it's sometimes the language that, that we in the sector that state laws say that the board is responsible for the mission. Well, they can't do that by themselves. They do it with the community that they serve. They do it with professional staff who are on the front lines. So there's language that says the board is responsible for it. Sometimes unfortunately it's more egregious, I pay for it. Therefore I get to decide what our priorities are. And I think executives over underestimate they either manipulate or overestimate how much power they have because they control information. And so board members sometimes feel excluded or executives don't want to give them too much information because they'll get in the weeds. And that creates a tension that is counterproductive.
Carol: Yeah. And I've definitely always wondered about that aspect and, and been in organizations where I've seen those dynamics playing out where it seems like in the, the, the way that conventionally nonprofit governance. Is taught and the models that people are using currently, there is a lot of power in, in that executive director role of, especially around controlling information and what information is shared, what information isn't shared that, can, can lead to some not great outcomes. So I'm curious about what your perspective is on that.
Marla: So I feel like I walk into a lot of boardrooms and there's this hope. Assumption that there's a nice, neat line in the middle of the sand. That's a bright line that says on one side is what the CEO and the staff do. And on the other side is what the board does. And when I walk in and say, the reality is it's a fuzzy line. It moves sometimes depending on the circumstances of the organization, either as it grows and changes over time or on the size and shape and nature of the organization. And the goal is to know where the line should be and agree on it for your organization at the moment in time. No, when you cross over and know when it's time to go back to your respective sides and that underlying that is the. Every decision you can make the case that should really be borders should really be, may be management and to say, What's the sequence of the discussions and conversations and decision making, as opposed to thinking it's all one or all the other, and realizing that almost everything really has to be done in partnership or together in some way. And it's the process about how do you do that? That is the way through the mass to see where the line is and what to do on terms of what's management and what's board work,
Carol: Can you give an example of what you mean by that?
Marla: So strategic planning is a pretty classic one, which is, again, it depends, the board has a role in it. I think of the board as bookends. They should be involved in the front end, the back end, but board members and the board in particular, can't do strategic planning by themselves. They need information from the CEO. They need information from the field. They need information from the frontline staff, from constituents and stakeholders. And it's gotta be an inclusive process. And often the executive and the staff are the ones that filter and synthesize and frame that information for the board on a regular basis. And together talk about what's the priority, what's the shift, what are our goals and what matters most? And some of those things about what matters most are going to be based on client needs. Others are going to be based on organization. so the client needs in terms of which programs, where should we grow, where should we shrink? How do we rethink what we do? Some of them are going to be on Operational issues about size staffing technology. Inevitably, every strategic plan has to improve operational excellence or systems. And that's really the purview of the staff and the CEO. But when you get to fundamental questions about sort of, are we really a hunger organization thinking of a food bank or are we really a poverty or anti-poverty organization? Those are philosophical conversations that have to be had by everybody.
Carol: Yeah, I definitely see when I'm doing strategic planning, I want to see it as a partnership between board and staff, because each is bringing different information, different perspectives and to really have buy-in for what those final strategic goals are going to be. Staff need to be involved in those conversations. So what would you say is the key to having healthy governance?
Marla: You need magic. So I'm a big fan of alliteration as a recovering book editor, but I think there's a combination of, I used to say, it's just, you need good. You need clarity, real clarity, and sharpness of focus on what you're doing. You need great communication and information sharing. I always say this is a little of the Goldilocks approach, the right amount, not too much information, not too little and at the right time. And I started to add to that list. You need real curiosity to break out of old habits and maybe COVID has brought this to the fore, but I also think it is just part and parcel of words in particular need to be with. Ask good questions and then work together to find the answers and executives who have a lot of the answers, and sometimes think it's their job to give answers all the time. Need to be curious about what's behind board members, questions, interests, responses, as opposed to being defensive. And the last one I would add as context, which is what does the organization need now? And in the future, knowing where you've come from. And the, I did this somewhere else. And you hear that a lot from board members, and you'll hear that a lot from executive directors to say what fits the culture, what aligns with the organization's culture and purpose and mission. So that it makes sense for this organization now and going forward. And I always say the end going forward, because board work is often hindsight and I wish there was more foresight with it.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean?
Marla: So board meetings often happen and you get lots of information and reports. That is all about what happened in the past. What happened last month, last quarter, last year, and not a lot about the, what you see coming up in the next 3, 6, 12, 18, 24 months. And so how do you use it? And that's, that's the reality of information sharing because there's nothing, there's no data on what's going to happen next, but how do you use the past to inform conversations about wow, we saw. But they need an X during the last six months. How do we pivot to make more of that available? What are we going to stop doing so that we can put more staff onto this program? And so I think it's that using the past to inform the present, as opposed to saying pat yourself on the back and say, Hey, we just did a great job on this, or, oh my God, we're having a panic. Because if something didn't work, we should beat ourselves up and slash the budget to say, let's really think about what. Coming ahead and short-term, and long-term.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's so important. Especially around the communications piece. Cause that could be so tricky of a kind, you want people to be informed. It's challenging to get people to read things ahead of time. So you end up with a lot of reports, but as you're saying, that's all looking backwards and so, how can. Boards, carve out the time to have some strategic conversations, get, sometimes I'll talk to folks about, what's a, what's a question that you can have a half an hour conversation about that isn't necessarily about making decisions today. But opening up so that you're thinking about possibilities for the future is right. None of us can predict the future, but by just having that discipline of trying to look ahead and notice name and notice trends, et cetera can, can help. And I think having some a couple of questions to frame that up really helps people have those conversations because otherwise it's like, okay, well, are we being strategic? We're supposed to be strategic. How are we doing?
Marla: One of the challenges is that people are so prone to asking, yes, no questions as opposed to open-ended questions. And there is a time when you need a yes, no. And up, down, vote on something. I think you learn more from the boards when you can ask them open-ended questions, which is what worked, what would work better? What would you do differently? What did we learn from this? Where there is no, yes, no answer. And you can then pull out the nuggets of information that can inform things. And so as opposed to saying, will you approve this or do you agree with this decision learning to ask open-ended questions creates more discussion. And I think the more board members are given a chance to have productive and constructive conversation and discourse in the boardroom and not be talked at or to. Is healthier. So one of the mantras, I think I can brag about board source on this podcast is that when we were aboard board source, our rule is staff. When we presented to the board you had five minutes of the hour-long agenda item. They had them on our board and came prepared, but they had the materials in advance. You framed the questions for discussion, and we gave the highlights and then it was a board discussion. And they would ask big questions and they would offer different points of view, but it wasn't. I gave the report for 20 minutes or half an hour that they already had read. And then ask them, do you agree with that?
Carol: Yeah, that's so important. And it's really like those almost as if the report is laying the groundwork or setting the stage for having that conversation rather than yeah. Being talked out and then going, oh, whoops. We ran out of time for any conversation about this. Yeah. So, what are some other things that you see get in the way of kind of, of good governance? You talked about those extremes of like either the board that you may have all the power and none of the power. What are some other things that get in the way of boards that are just being talked at by staff?
Marla: It’s people. Boards would be great if there was nobody on them, nobody staffing them. Right?
Carol: None of us, we have any work. If there weren't any people in home,
Marla: We get in our own way as execs and board members in terms of not listening in terms of having preconceived ideas in terms of. Presenting a defense or offense for something as opposed to a conversation. And so I think it's, and I think board members, on the one hand, there's this push for efficiency. We want to be efficient. So we're going to run through a bunch of conversations or meetings. Or we're going to try and cover so many things that then there's no time for conversations. So I feel like board members and execs put up their own barriers, they bring a lot of baggage or and preconceived ideas into their board work and their work together. That, to say, taking time out to pause And find a way to say what's how we should be as a board and spending time on board purpose and culture can overcome a lot of the usual frustrations that go around boards, but it takes time. And often people don't feel like they have time for what board, something many board members do. We'll say it is navel gazing. And many execs would say it's not going to make a difference. But taking time out to say, well, is this a good use of our time? What's the most important thing we talked about? What could we do differently at the next thing? I just came from a board meeting this weekend where we finally have turned around the board. We've restructured it. We've got new board members on and somebody complained about one of the agenda items. Like, all we do is talk about fundraising. So I said, what do you want to talk about next? And I think that was the first time that the board had ever been asked what's of interest to you. And I think that's a healthy conversation and let the board own some of it.
Carol: Yeah, I think so often when I talk to folks, the whole question of slowing down and taking a pause and stepping back and thinking about, well, why are we doing things the way we're doing them? Or, is this really serving us? Always comes up and then there is the pressure of, we just gotta get through this. We've got so many things on our agenda. Yeah, I, I, to me, when. When I was on board. And, and in charge of putting together the agenda, I was always fighting. Well, it was us fighting might be a strong word, but there was a struggle often between us having all these different things to talk about and then being saying, well, We're really not going to talk about any of them. If we just try to rush through it all we'll just end up having to come back to it anyway. So could we have fewer things on the agenda so that we could really dig into at least one of them?
Marla: Well, I think that's a silver lining for boards during the time of COVID, which is, many were meeting more often, less often, but they were all meeting differently than they used to. And I think it is forced. One of the most important conversations, which is what does the board need to talk about and why, and what do we not need to have as a board meeting on a board meeting agenda. So to hear a lot of reports that there's not a lot of conversation about is a waste of everyone's time. And yet it has value. I understand when you're in a board meeting, like people aren't thinking about the organization as board members on a day-to-day basis, and they want to know what's new and different, but finding a different way to convey that or a more engaging and interactive way to talk about what's happening at the organization so that when you are together with the board, with the average of whatever 15 people. You are using everyone's time to the highest value, which is what's. How can we add value to the organization and help the executive and help advance our mission? No. Be not a board, his book club. Let's just talk about what you did last month and how great it was, but you're not actually contributing anything of, of intellectual or strategic value.
Carol: So, what are some of the innovations that you've seen come out this past 18 months?
Marla: I have been surprised and shocked and pleased at being able to do some board assessment, evaluate self evaluation, work online with doing the typical online survey and then presenting the results, and creating it as a separate meeting. Whereas if we were always meeting in person, it was an all day retreat. There was a lot of drama and anxiety around, oh my God, what are we going to do per day? Is it worth it, but to kick off a conversation in an hour and a half or two at a zoom meeting and talk about it and then parlay it into full board discussion. So it's almost like deconstructing what were retreats? Definitely missed the in-person social networking that happens when board members are together. No one get this wrong, I'm all for meeting again in person. But I think the innovation of saying we can call an extra meeting for an hour and a half and use it as a listening to her, use it for a discussion that doesn't require action. Use it to dig into one topic. So I think that's the notion of focus. Out of it. I think there's just a lot. I think people have realized how much information you need and what's the best way to present it. Because I hear all the complaints and I haven't heard them lately. That board meetings are just a bunch of presentations. So when you work on zoom. You have to think about how much presentation, how many Hollywood squares can I see, how many, how much is too much PowerPoint. All of that is a test to be rethought. The strain honestly, though, is that it takes a lot more work to organize a meeting like that on zoom than to do it in person. It can take a lot. It can, it doesn't have to, but even as a consultant who does this all the time to plan and design interactive meetings, it takes more of a.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, it's been interesting to me where you talked about deconstructing the retreat. I've definitely seen the advantage of breaking up. I do a lot of strategic planning and break up those processes into a series of two hour or three hour meetings where you're really just doing one piece of it. You're starting out with that. Okay. So, I've, I've done all those conversations. I've done that assessment. I've got survey data, all of that. Let me share that with you. Let's make sure. But that's it that we're going to do today. We're not going to try to get to the very end in one day and have that marathon that people have had before. So I've really appreciated that, that focus that that can be brought.
Marla: I've done something similar with orientation and I did this before. COVID with an organization that is very small and. It's a national organization and people just can't afford to come together very often. And so a couple of years ago, we started a three-part session of orientation. One session about the state of the organization. One session about the work of the board in one session. Planning for the next year, board action planning that then feeds into organizational planning and budgeting. And we've been doing it in these three-part sessions now, I think for three or four years. And it really is like there, it compounds it, it gives people time to think about it. They tag it on to an existing board meeting, so they're not creating more stuff. It's worked really wonderfully and I've watched the board come along. And the conversation, even if the session, the content doesn't change much, the quality of the conversation has improved. And in the beginning they didn't talk a lot. And now there's much more back and forth. It's much less hearing me talk, but to have board member to board member conversation. So I think things like breaking things down have been, has been.
Carol: Yeah. And I'm even thinking, in terms of all those presentations what, what, might've all been written reports before, you could just record a brief, the, the staff or the, whatever the report is and have those go out beforehand. So you watch them while they're doing the dishes or listen to them while they're taking a walk, it doesn't have to all be written materials. So there's lots of different ways that you can deliver whatever information people need to have to have the conversation.
Marla: I'm trying to think of other innovations I've seen. And I think it just has to do with better reports. I've seen a, like little they're, more logistical and operational about better way board members are getting in the execs, I guess, are getting better at organizing board packets and materials and online handbooks and resources. And I think this is the nature of the pandemic, but I think it's a healthy thing. And I've seen other execs do this often when they're new, which is communication between board meetings. Assuming you're not meeting monthly, which I rarely recommend. But that, they're like, here's an update from the staff on what's happening on the ground because board members, especially during COVID and especially if you're doing frontline work, want to know what it’s like in the office or the quote office. What are you seeing? And so they don't have to be long emails, but a, like, here's three exciting things that happened this month. And yes, it takes some time from the exec to do that, but to be strategic about it and balance it between operational and strategic issues and need, and mission has, I think, helped some board members feel better connected. I've also seen some really savvy execs have coffee hour sort of, much more intentionally one-on-one with board members or an open house, like just call and ask questions, schedule time on a, like once a month basis for just whats. So people can ask questions because I think with all the uncertainty around, going back to work or direct service needs or increases or decreases in funding. It's just a way to ask questions without feeling like it's the formality of a full meal. Yeah, I love that.
Carol: There are lots of different ways to do that communication, that isn't all in the box of a board meeting, but what are the different ways that you can poke people in and not have it be onerous either on the board members part or on the staff part, but to keep those lines of communication open. So on each episode I'd like to play. A game where I ask one random icebreaker question. My question for you is what book have you read recently that you would recommend and why?
Marla: One of the things they did during the pandemic was a virtual book club with people I've been in book clubs with over the course of my life, and none of us are in the same city. So it's been a blast. My favorite book was Deacon King Kong by James McBride. I can see you smiling. Not everybody can do that on the podcast. So it is a historical novel, if you will. We'll about, I believe it was the sixties in New York city and it had the, the Italian mafia on the Irish cops and the black drug dealers. And The Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn, I can't even remember, but it had the best characters.
Carol: Character names for sure.
Marla: Absolutely the best names. And so it was incredibly relevant to the world today and issues of social justice and community. And yeah, just a blast to read. He's a wonderful writer. And we had some fun conversations about it, we were joking about that. So if you haven't read the book, the burning question in our head was what was the cheese that was left in the basement by that was left for the community in the basement of the boiler room.
Carol: I do remember it now. I do remember it. Yeah, there was just so it set in, in a, in a housing project. I can't remember what borough of New York and just all the intersections of community and. These characters. Oh my goodness. Yeah. So Donald has great characters, but the story moves too. So yeah. I love that.
Marla: I want it to be a movie.
Carol: Yes. I think it would make a great movie. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Marla: It was amazing in the middle of the pandemic. I worked on a think tank research project about the principles of trusteeship which I did with the association of governing boards of universities and colleges. It's always a mouthful to say that and it really focused on what are the principles of would that make a great board member? Not a great board because the board is made up of a bunch of people. And as I said earlier, one of the obstacles to governance is people. And so it was really fun and amazing to tap into the wisdom of a bunch of college and universities per professor presidents and foundation executives to say what they had seen and to do this in the middle of the pandemic. When you thought colleges didn't even know if they were going to be open that semester. Folks, hundreds of volunteers from AGB we're on focus groups. And so really walking away with this sort of, how do you speak to the individual? I think it has made me realize how important it is to say, it's not just what a good board should do, but it's like, what can you personally do and do better as a board member and. I feel like that's a mantra that comes out in conversation, but not as explicitly as this project brought it into focus. And so really helping people see what you are doing to help or get in the way of yourself or others. Be part of a great board.
Carol: Is there a report or some summary of findings for that?
Marla: It’s coming. There is a big purple book that we did that has nine principles. They fall into three big buckets. I was a PI. Now it's a mandola because that sounds far more sophisticated than a pie. It was at Thanksgiving when we came up with a pie that has an inner circle of three pieces, which is understood by the government. Think strategically and lead by example or lead with integrity. And so that is what you as an individual should do. And then each piece of that pie has components built within it that get at your role as a. As a fiduciary of the organization. So you've got to uphold that they get a, what role you play on the board as a member of a team. Like not everyone is the captain or the center or the goalie. I'm a soccer fan. And then there is the, what do you do outside of the board and board work? That you do as a volunteer. So when you have special expertise or you show up on campus for an event or whatever it is that you're doing, that is not board work, but you do because you love the organization or you're passionate, or because you're a board member, but you have something to add that is not a governance function. And I think so. Yes, it came out as a book that you can buy from AGB. There is an article that I wrote for trusteeship magazine that I believe is free to anyone on the AGB website, agb.org. And the title is what board members are you? So it's again, it's speaking to you. And then there's a whole bunch of stuff that AGB is rolling out, but it really was this process of self-reflection and trying to make it and put it in the language that is accessible and not jargon. And that isn't shaming people or giving them commandments, thou shall do this, but that's say, we know this is hard and we know it varies from organization to organization, but there are some fundamentals that we think everybody should be capable of doing, or you shouldn't be on the board.
Carol: Awesome. All right. Well, we'll look for that so that we can put a link in the show notes, so, awesome. Thank you so much. It was great having you in love to have this conversation.
Marla: Likewise, thanks for including me and keeping up the good governance work. All right. Thanks.
Carol: I appreciated Marla’s perspective on how the work of governance is not always crystal clear about whether an issue or decision is in the realm of strategy or management. Those are two categories that are somewhat arbitrary and there is a gray area between them. Clear communication and trust between the board and the executive director and senior leadership can go a long way to make it safe for each group to ask the questions it has, get the information it needs and feel supportive of each other instead of so wary about whether they are stepping on each other toes or getting in each other’s lanes. The models may make it look super distinctive but folks need to realize that sometimes it is not. I also appreciated the point that boards needs to spend more time looking forward than backward. Too often so much of board meetings is taken up with reports – updates on work done by committees, staff, task forces, etc. Instead of using the time that everyone is together to have a discussion about a key issue – whether it is one facing the organization today or one that folks see coming down the pike. As much as you can get reports to people in another format than shared verbally in a meeting – whether it is a written update, a short video or audio message – there are lots of options to consider.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Marla, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. Until next time.
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