CONS event focuses on ways nonprofit boards communicate and govern

NC State Professor Jessica Katz Jameson
NC State Professor Jessica Katz Jameson

On the rare occasions that board meetings lead the evening news, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. Members are seen angrily pointing fingers at one another or unable to contain outbursts from frustrated constituents. When communication appears so strained, it’s no wonder the public presumes that not much good happens at such gatherings.

NC State Professor Jessica Katz Jameson has spent more time in board meetings over the last several years than have many members of nonprofits boards. She’s seen some battles, but data demonstrates that she’s witnessed more success – or, at minimum, actions intended to generate success.

In collaboration with colleague Barbara Metelsky, a former director of the Institute for Nonprofits, Jameson found consistent outcomes in three related studies that board members typically conduct themselves in a professional manner and focus on core issues that are relevant to positive progress. Importantly, their research points to ways that boards can communicate more effectively to stay on task and achieve mission specific goals.

“We are grateful to the four nonprofit organizations that allowed us to sit in on their board meetings for a full year,” says Jameson, who will present their findings, “Nonprofit Board Communication and Generative Governance,” from 3-4:30 p.m. Thursday at a meeting of the Community of Nonprofit Scholars (CONS). The event will be held in Room 102 of the Wake County Cooperative Extension Center, 4001-E Carya Drive, Raleigh.

“Without their support we would not have been able to gain such a clear picture about governance: how it’s enacted, how people communicated during board meetings, and the implications of the communication,” she adds. “Their honest interactions helped us to identify practical takeaways that any board can put into place to be more effective.”

The first study examined 10 key responsibilities of board members, which were coded and counted across a full year of meetings. Not surprisingly, 37 percent of attention was given to determining, monitoring and strengthening the organization’s programs and services.

“That’s what they should be doing,” Jameson says. “Fiscal oversight is the next closest thing, while it was under 14 percent of all meeting communication. And attention to organizational mission, purpose and structure was only .13 percent.”

While the latter rate reflected the fact that the board’s mission was well understood, Jameson said its failure to be mentioned more often was striking. Additionally, if a question was framed in a given context – for example, as a fiscal matter – it rarely was examined from another point of view, such as whether a decision might have legal implications.

“It suggests that they were not taking as full an examination of a topic as they could have,” she says. “There should be more of an intentionality to look at all perspectives.”

In contrast, the second study examined eight discrete “episodes,” four each from two organizations, in which decisions were being made. This study was led by Melinda Leonardo, a doctoral student in Communication Rhetoric and Digital Media. Elements such as agreement or disagreement, acknowledgement and interruption were measured as types of communication interactions. Agreement accounted for 28 percent of discussion, with disagreement registering just 7 percent. So what else was going on?

“There was a fairly high level of interruptions, people talking over one another to make their point,” Jameson said. “It’s understandable that board members are passionate, but in those moments it may be more difficult to  consider the views of others, especially newer members, women and other under-represented groups.”

However, when quieter members were specifically asked to offer feedback, they almost always did. “It shows that boards have to identify ways to keep all members positively engaged,” Jameson says.

The third and most recent study closely examined 25 percent of all meeting content for the same organizations in the second study, but from the angle of task-oriented and socially-oriented communication. Was communication focused on providing information? Was it adversarial or did it build consensus? How much of board meeting activity is problem solving/decision making?

“We also looked at individual speaking turns and what people were doing with their communication,” Jameson says. “The reason we looked at this so closely is to find those features that help to frame positive actions. If boards can actively avoid situations where communication becomes detrimental, they will be that much closer to achieving their goals.”

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