'Tis the Season?
December 17th, 2006
I was decidedly NOT in the holiday mood until the past couple of days. Well - I am getting there. This has been quite a year! We have made significant strides at the Foundation and I'm very proud and pleased about that - kudos to the fabulous staff and a tremendous board of trustees! This past year saw my sister and I consumed by the "aging parent" syndrome and we now join the legions of middle aged "kids" wringing their hands as they describe their experiences - great conversation starters. My mom is 86 years old and moved into a lovely apartment in an Assisted Living facility in suburban Detroit. Our journey is similar to many people across the country so I won't get into the challenges we faced this year. I find myself making more charitable contributions and stuffing more money into the Salvation Army's Red Kettles throughout the Grand Rapids and metro Detroit areas. My favorite bell ringers thus far were the Grand Rapids Fire Department fire fighters stationed outside of Macy's at Woodland Mall (a.k.a. Marshall Field's and Hudson's). They were so taken by the young women swarming them - thoroughly enjoying themselves. I happened to be in the way dropping in some money into the kettle and one of the fire fighters was backed up right into me! Not a problem - they just continued flirting with the young ladies! It was pretty funny though! I finally decorated my home - not as lavishly as I have done in previous years but it is beautiful nonetheless. So now am I in the holiday mood? Sure - but three thoughts dominate my mind this Sunday morning: 1) The rebellion is on! Is it the "holiday season" or the "Christmas season"? It is now politically incorrect to say Happy Holidays! If you don't say "Merry Christmas" then people are off to the races with their assumptions! 2) Gift giving is beyond out of control - I think the advent of gift cards has upped the ante in terms of dollar outlay. Whew - take a break and realize that a hug may be much more important! 3) Nonprofits need funding support throughout the year not just during these last few weeks of the year. I would hope that the "holiday" spirit is felt all the year - that the generosity continues! I wish everyone peace, compassion and love in their lives!
The gift of leadership
December 12th, 2006Long overlooked as being critical to an organization's success, boards of directors or trustees are essential for many reasons. No they are not the enemy to any CEO reading this post - they are your allies, your sounding board and frankly at times, your reality check!
In my last entry I wrote about the BoardSource conference that Margaret Sellers Walker and I attended and were invited to provide some insights regarding the importance of the working relationship between the Board Chair and the CEO. Margaret is rotating off the board at the end of December and I will miss her! During her eight years on the board she has taken the lead creating our Trusteeship (Governance) Committee ultimately completing the restructuring of our board process - which was a decade long journey.
Also under Margaret's wise counsel and direction, the board has adopted many of the principles in the book Governance as Leadership , by Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor. Our board and leadership staff received BoardSource training in August 2005 on integrating three modes of board discussion/operation - fiduciary, strategic and generative. Marilyn Lankfer, our 2007 Board Chair, and I received a refresher a few weeks ago at BoardSource's office in Washington D.C. With the wisdom and tenacity of a strong Executive Committee, we now make the time to tap into the intellect of our board members using the generative mode of board operation.
This is an inquiry style that has helped us in shaping our vision, understanding our BHAGs as described in Jim Collin's monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors as well as a multi-meeting discussion on cultural competency and the relationship to grantmaking. It is a great way to move away from the rote mode of board meetings dotted with the "let's hear from the __________ Committee" and yes here is another report from our "remarkable" staff. We are trying very hard to embrace the generative mode understanding that no one has all the answers.
So thank you Margaret for your gift of leadership. You have left an indelible mark on the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and we are forever grateful!
Winding around the lake
December 5th, 2006As many people know in our area, our Board Chair, Margaret Sellers Walker, is a highly respected and wise community leader. She has spent the past few years shaping and leading training programs for nonprofit boards and staff at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University and teaching various courses in public administration. This followed a distinguished career with state and local government most recently as an Assistant City Manager with the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Margaret expects the best from everyone and if you are in her presence you want to do your very best! She is remarkable.
Why do I lead with a very brief bio of Margaret? Because it will help in understanding a situation we experienced on Sunday. We returned yesterday afternoon from Chicago where we attended and presented at the Leadership Forum of BoardSource. We were a part of a four person panel discussion in the opening plenary of this conference. BoardSource leaders were pleased with the fact that the Leadership Forum attracted a sold-out crowd of 700 people from across the country and a few people from other countries. It was a great conference and BoardSource is a great organization!
The panel's topic was to focus on the important relationship between the Board Chair and the CEO of nonprofit organizations and the 700 people in the audience had high expectations as they wanted to hear insights that they could apply in their roles in their nonprofits. The organizations they represented ranged from very small to quite large - yet they all had something in common and that was to learn why having exceptional governance is essential to the effectiveness of an organization. We were interviewed by Richard (Dick) Chait who is a professor at Harvard University and leading author and commentator of the importance of exceptional governance. Our board has used his ideas for many years and it shows! I will write on this in future postings.
The other panel participants included the board chair and CEO of a large national nonprofit serving the needs of youth in many communities across the United States and now in many countries beyond our shores. I was looking forward to meeting these two individuals as their bios demonstrated their leadership roles and I was particularly interested as they are women who have excelled. I admire and support successful women knowing that there are many barriers to overcome as leaders who happen to be female!
And indeed their stories didn't disappoint and nor did ours. What was disappointing though was the attitude that our fellow participants demonstrated our pre-meeting to organize the format of the session and the potential questions that Dick was planning to pose. Apparently operating and leading a large nonprofit is much more challenging than operating and leading a local community foundation.
Well it is just different that is all. Imagine my surprise when the board chair asked the question in the midst of our organizing session if "for contextual purposes" there was going any mention of the fact that they lead an organization that employs more than 50,000 staff with an annual operating budget of multiple millions of dollars, yada yada yada. Adding to this she looked over at me and said that she serves on the board of the community foundation in her community giving the impression that that organization was much smaller yet not as challenging as the one she chaired. I know that foundation well and it is a leading foundation in our country and quite sizable in terms of assets, grants paid and influence. Too bad that is lost on her. I couldn't look at Margaret as I knew she was as stunned as I was.
It wasn't for the "contextual purpose" that the two women were getting at and after the comment was out there, they were terribly politically correct in trying to explain that. And I thought that we in West Michigan were the only ones guilty of what we call "West Michigan Polite".
That experience gave Margaret and I plenty to talk and laugh about for the three hour drive around Lake Michigan and yes there were some thrilling moments as the lake effect snow hit suddenly after we refueled both the car and ourselves (gasoline for the car and plenty of coffee for the humans!) in Sawyer, Michigan. We left Chicago early fully aware of the weather and the challenges.
We laughed at the presumptions that our fellow panelists made about the size of nonprofits in the pre-meeting yet when asked if "size matters" during the actual session, the board chair adamantly said that it indeed did not. And my commentary is that it is more about the role of the board and the fact that the relationship of the board chair and CEO is critical for organizational health and vitality. I will write more about the key points that Margaret and I talked about both on the way home as well as on the way to Chicago.