I’ve been enjoying serving on the selection committee for the Center for Nonprofit Advancement’s Board Leadership Award. A particularly interesting moment came when committee members were asked to describe the dominant lenses through which they viewed the nonprofit sector and the selection process. Lenses mentioned included executive director, board president, and nonprofit auditor or consultant.
These are not the only common lenses on the nonprofit world. Others include board member, staff member, donor, client, or even NIMBY-incensed community member. It is not surprising that we sometimes see things differently from each other.
My dominant lens is executive director. Even when not serving in that role, I’ve found that it is very hard to stop “thinking like an E.D.”
Service on the selection committee – and as a board member and officer of the organization sponsoring the award – has prompted me to purposefully pick up a new lens and seek a different view.
The last time I served as a board member, I was in college! So it has been a long time since I looked directly through this lens. But serving on the board of an organization whose mission is to nurture the nonprofit sector itself is bound to make anyone attentive to appropriate roles and responsibilities within nonprofit governance.
As a board member, I try hard to be conscious of where the boundaries are between board and staff – both in terms of who does what, and who thinks about what. I do this because I know it’s the right thing to be conscious of as a board member. But – I have to admit – I also do it because a piece of me is considering what it would feel like if I were the E.D. and a board member repeatedly crossed one of those boundaries with me.
On the selection committee, it’s been interesting to flip this lens around. There, even when the subject is excellence in board leadership, we’ve seen fascinating examples in which executive directors reveal that they are actually the ones running the show. By making a purposeful effort to look through the board lens, it is easier to see how strong E.D.’s might overcompensate by providing a type of leadership to the board that inadvertently diminishes its ability to develop its own leadership strengths.
Our lenses on life are like biases. They are formed from past experiences that deeply affect how we view the present. They can positively or negatively affect the ways in which we interact with others and conduct our work. As with biases, it’s important that we acknowledge them – to ourselves, and often, to each other.
This was the brilliance of the simple question that was asked of the committee. By laying out our dominant lenses, we understood a bit more about each other – and took time to remember how many equally important lenses there are.