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Governing the Networked Nonprofit

Nonprofits operate in a networked world. The web shapes the environment in which everything happens these days. Your reputation in this increasingly open world depends on how well you manage your presence on the web. Safeguarding and enhancing that reputation is one of the key responsibilities of the governing board of your organization.

Customers, clients, funders, supporters, volunteers, staff, and board members – present and potential – will probably check out your organization’s website and web presence prior to  and while engaging with your nonprofit. If they do not find you on the web, that leaves an impression.  If they find an outdated website, that leaves an impression.  If they find an inviting, engaging, and informative website complemented by the same kind of presence on social media, that leaves an impression.  Your organization operates in a networked world.  You show up or not in those networks.  How you show up is determined by policies set and monitored by your board.

Don Tapscott is one of my favorite students of our networked world.  He is a Canadian futurist and business thinker, provoking people to consider the technological dimension of the processes through which they pursue their purposes.  In a recent TED Talk, he outlined four principles that organizations have to honor if they are to sustain and expand their credibility with their publics in an open world – collaboration, transparency, sharing, and empowerment. This article explores some of the implications of governing the networked nonprofit with these principles in mind.  It focuses on how to provoke ideas that will strengthen the reputation and enhance the profile of your non-profit in an open networked world.

Collaboration involves inviting contributions from everywhere.  It honors the fact that imaginations produce creative ideas and innovative practices best when many people are invited to contribute to the achievement of the organization’s purpose.  Town halls, surveys, and blogs that generate online conversations are just three ways of welcoming the input and generation of ideas. The best boards are open continuously to this kind of collaboration and consciously create the spaces in which it can happen.

They invite collegiality around the following questions:

  • What do you imagine might be possible?
  • What would make that happen?
  • What are you willing to do?
  • How can I support?

Transparency involves communicating the good, the bad, and the ugly in timely and astute ways.  Stakeholders and supporters deserve to know precisely what is going on – the aspirations, the achievements, the challenges, the failures, and the corrections.  People expect authentic accountability, not cynical spin.  My recommended approach is to provide such transparency within an appreciative framework that considers goals to realize, realities to face, options to consider, and ways forward to choose and implement.  It is important to follow this order in your considerations so that possibilities rather than problems define reality for you.

This approach allows you to deal honestly with the following questions in the following order:

  • What does this organization aspire to achieve?
  • What strengths and resources can we apply to this purpose?
  • What’s likely to get in the way of us achieving our aspirations?
  • How can we draw on our strengths to overcome our barriers?

Sharing involves being open, generous, and generative with your ideas. It means convening conversations within and around the board in which there is space for sharing. Such space is created only through curiosity. Complaint, contention, and criticism shut down the space for sharing. There is no room for the sharing of ideas. Problems and positions take up all the space.  Possibilities and potential get squeezed out of the conversation.

You can create an open space for generous and generative sharing by asking the following questions:

  • What do you think would improve the delivery of our mission?
  • Who else should we ask to share their ideas with us?
  • If that’s what you don’t like, what would you like to see happen?
  • Can we give this a bit more consideration and talk more about it tomorrow?

Empowerment involves creating the processes that enable a lot of people to contribute to the purpose. Ideally, power is not jealously held by the few, but widely distributed to the many.  Good boards recognize that the point of all these networked conversations is to create the spaces in which more and more people can contribute their passion and competence to the cause.  Effective boards align people, purpose, and processes to produce benefits for their communities. They empower a broad range of people to flourish.

You can generate and celebrate this kind of empowerment by asking the following questions:

  • What are you most proud of contributing to this organization since we last met?
  • Who can contribute best to achieving what we’ve just decided to do?
  • What kind of support will they need to contribute their best, and then more?
  • How can we best appreciate their contributions?

Networked nonprofits are stronger nonprofits.  They flourish by creating the space for generative thinking about the best ways of serving their cause, then aligning their resources to implement their decisions.  When governing boards model this way of being for their organizations, the chances of it becoming “the way things are done around here” greatly increase. That’s one of the only ways, in this open networked world, that boards can safeguard and enhance the reputation of their nonprofits.

Brian Fraser

About the Contributor: Brian Fraser

Brian Fraser is lead provocateur of Jazzthink, a company that uses the wit, workings and wisdom of jazz to help organizations revive their VIBE.   Brian composes and plays with acronyms to help people imagine and remember key success factors in their organizational flourishing and the leadership that creates space for that to happen.  VIBE captures the flow of resilient planning for both organizations and their leaders.  It moves from the clarification of Values, to the composing of Intentions, to the analysis of Barriers, to the essentials in Execution.  There are lots of harmonies and rhythms that need to be worked out one conversation after another among colleagues, clients, and the community, but this is the basic melody line for flourishing organizations.

Brian also invites you to play around with an acronym for COOL (Collaborate, Observe, Originate, and Lead) to remember the key competencies required for organizational health and resilience and one for SMART (Soulful, Mindful, Astute, Responsible, and Trusting) to remember the key elements in conversations that build such organizations.  Visit the Jazzthink website at www.jazzthink.com for more information on the ideas and practices that Brian suggests.

From 1985-2001, he was dean of the Presbyterian college at the University of British Columbia and taught leadership and organizational development at Vancouver School of Theology.

Since founding Jazzthink in 2002, he has been speaking, facilitating, coaching, and writing to help organizations revive their VIBE to achieve their desired results.

In addition his work on teamwork and governance with a broad range of nonprofits, Brian continues to work in leadership, consulting, and coaching roles with faith-based nonprofits.  He keeps his work firmly grounded in the realities of nonprofit leadership by ministering half-time with Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Burnaby, BC (www.brentwoodpc.ca).

In all of this, he convenes provocative conversations that generate flourishing communities.

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