Nonprofit organizations often recruit people who have been successful in the business sector to serve on their board of directors. It’s a practice that can work well, enabling a nonprofit to gain valuable perspective from smart professionals—but only if those professionals are equipped to engage actively and meaningfully both in board meetings and in the work of the organization. That’s a big “if,” and it raises lots of questions for board members whose experience lies mainly outside the nonprofit sector.
In fact, mastering the challenge of nonprofit board service starts with raising questions. In a new feature article for McKinsey Quarterly, Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker present a brief guide to doing precisely that. They write:
If you know how to probe, nudge, and prod, you can help your board perform better. Doing so starts with courage. In our experience, nonprofit board members are often reluctant to contribute actively to discussions for fear that they will appear uninformed or cause an embarrassing ruckus. To be effective, you must overcome that fear. And then you must ask questions. Ask all your questions, even ones you fear might seem stupid, and keep asking them until you figure out what the smart questions are.
The article (“The Four Questions to Ask When Serving on a Nonprofit Board”) appears in the December 2017 issue of McKinsey Quarterly. You can read it here.
“Americans today are looking for some ‘common ground,’ …” Bill Meehan told Brook Manville in a recently published interview. “Our associative initiatives are a formal sector now. [That sector is] perfectly positioned to give us all a chance to do something meaningful without politics. It’s a perfect antidote for today’s dysfunction—because when people join in shared purpose, they see they have more in common than they first thought.”
Manville, a consultant and executive coach, spoke with Meehan in his role as a regular contributor to Forbes.com. The interview ranges widely but also delves deeply into “what it takes” for social sector leaders both to achieve real impact in the world and to achieve personal meaning in their work. Meehan doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges that come with making this career choice: “Nonprofit leaders have to get good at keeping things going, while sacrificing for years,” he says. “Because success can be so elusive to define, the hill can be even steeper.” But he highlights the rewards as well: “[P]ersonal meaning drives our spirit. So why not help make a better world?”
You can read Manville’s piece here.
Kyoko Uchida, features editor of Philanthropy News Digest (PND), a service provided by Foundation Center, has posted a thoughtful and comprehensive review of Engine of Impact at PhilanTopic, the PND blog.Uchida provides an extensive tour of key points from the book on topics such as mission, strategy, and board governance. She homes in on the central role that impact evaluation plays in Meehan and Jonker’s model of strategic leadership:
Meehan and Jonker believe that only nonprofits that can demonstrate, through quantifiable measurement, their impact and capacity to maximize it, should—and will—thrive in the Impact Era. What’s more, their sense of urgency is palpable throughout the book. While none of the concepts they present are revolutionary, they have been reinvigorated and realigned for this moment. Which makes Engine of Impact an energizing, if sobering, read for nonprofit leaders, board members, and funders alike.
The full review is available here.
In advance of the publication of Engine of Impact, and in conjunction with release of the Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector, GuideStar launched what will ultimately be an eight-part series of posts by Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker. The series, called “Your Engine of Impact,” will cover each of the seven elements that make up their model of strategic leadership, and it will conclude with a post on the role that strategic leadership plays in organizational scaling and in scaling impact.
Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar, wrote a special introductory post for the series. In his post, Harold also cites GuideStar-relevant findings from the Stanford Survey. And he makes a nod toward Meehan’s long history of supporting GuideStar and its mission:
Bill’s involvement in GuideStar runs deep. He was an early supporter of efforts by GuideStar founder Arthur “Buzz” Schmidt to leverage technology in a way that would empower donors to evaluate nonprofits. Bill also served on the GuideStar board from 1996 to 2012, and he holds the title of chair emeritus. Engine of Impact is, among other things, a culmination of Bill’s longstanding drive to bring greater rigor to nonprofit leadership.
Here are posts in the series that have appeared so far. (We will update the list as new posts go up at the GuideStar Blog.)
Thanks to Mario Marino and Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community, the nonprofit sector thought leader Beth Kanter received a copy of Engine of Impact. And she decided to review it on her blog. Kanter, author of widely read social sector books such as The Networked Nonprofit and Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout, calls the book “a great read, packed with insights as well as high level frameworks and practical applications” and suggests that it “should be on the holiday reading list” for nonprofit executives, board members, and donors.
Kanter draws attention to the special matrix that Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker present in Chapter 8 of their book. “I love frameworks, but sometimes they are dry and boring. Not in this book,” Kanter writs. “The authors have created a ‘Readiness to Scale Matrix’ which includes five categories, presented with engaging visual metaphors to make it memorable.” (That matrix also provides a framework for Meehan and Jonker’s Engine of Impact Diagnostic.)
A good book review tells you whether a book is worth reading. A great book review illuminates why a book was (or was not) worth writing in the first place. Lucy Bernholz, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and author of the annual Blueprint series on “Philanthropy and the Social Economy,” has posted a piece on Engine of Impact at her Philanthropy 2173 blog that clearly falls into the latter category.
In the review, Bernholz notes that Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker move beyond an all-too-common approach to describing the role of the nonprofit sector:
The idea that the social sector can both improve itself and, in so doing, improve and challenge, cajole and nudge other types of enterprises to greater action sets this book apart. Meehan and Jonker aren’t providing the nonprofit sector with “lessons learned from commerce” because business knows best, but quite the opposite. There are plenty of lessons for nonprofits from business, but the social sector’s opportunity (obligation?) is to act in such a way that businesses can follow. . . . [T]hey (nonprofits) are the engine of a society that can collectively address its greatest challenges.
Viewed in this light, Bernholz observes, the nonprofit sector is an “engine of impact” unto itself.
Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker have close connections to Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and much of the thinking in Engine of Impact originated on the Stanford University campus. But they also trace the roots of their book project to another institution: McKinsey & Company. Meehan is director emeritus at McKinsey, where he worked from 1978 to 2008. Jonker served as an associate and business analyst at the firm for several years between 1996 and 2003. In an interview posted at the firm’s Alumni Center website, the authors discuss their decision to collaborate on a study of nonprofit leadership, the ways in which their careers at McKinsey informed their perspective on the nonprofit sector, and other aspects of their experiences at the firm.
In the interview, Meehan notes the relevance of the book to the McKinsey community: “I think the book is truly a handbook for not only strategy, but things like the importance of fundraising and board governance and impact measurement for nonprofit executives, but we think the larger audience is people like McKinsey colleagues who serve on nonprofit boards and are philanthropists. The book is written very much with them in mind.”
The target audience of Engine of Impact includes executives and staff members at frontline nonprofit organizations whose work has the potential to yield tangible, measurable results. The chief goal of Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker in writing the book, in other words, was to inform and inspire those who are in a position to build, tune, and fuel a true “engine of impact.” Yet the authors acknowledge that nonprofits make up just one part of a system that in various ways fails to support the practice of strategic leadership.
In an article for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Meehan and Jonker flesh out this critical point by describing steps that systems-level actors can take to enable nonprofit organizations to maximize their performance. The piece focuses on three of the seven components of strategic leadership—components that, according to findings from the Stanford Survey of Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector, are most likely to pose a challenge for nonprofits. (See the chart above, which appears in the report on this survey.) Meehan and Jonker write:
[W]hile individual nonprofits have work to do, they alone can’t accomplish the sector-wide transformation that is so necessary. Much of the work of building more effective organizations needs to start, in particular, with the board members who oversee nonprofits and with the donors who sustain them financially. Consider the three areas of performance [board governance, funding, impact evaluation] in which nonprofits are most likely to struggle. In each, influential players within the nonprofit sector can and must help nonprofits develop strategic leadership capabilities.
The article, “Filling Essential Gaps in Nonprofit Leadership,” is available here.
The November 2017 issue of Chronicle of Philanthropy features an article by Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker that sets the current US political situation in the wider context of what they call the Impact Era. (For a discussion of the Impact Era, see the Introduction to Engine of Impact.)
Meehan and Jonker write:
Foundation leaders and philanthropy observers have issued calls to action that convey a strongly felt need to “resist”—to fight against policies of the new administration that violate ideals that many of us hold dear. That is essential work for organizations that focus on advocacy. But we believe that nonprofits of all types, along with their foundation and individual donors, face a broader task: In a time of social and political disarray, they must demonstrate their ability to sustain a diverse and robust civil society.
The article, which Chronicle of Philanthropy has made available to non-subscribers for a limited time, is an adaptation of “Strategic Leadership: Now Is the Time,” the concluding chapter of Engine of Impact.
In an article titled “Four Ways Nonprofits Can Increase Their Impact,” Theodore Kinni offers several nuggets of insight from an interview that he conducted with Bill Meehan and Kim Jonker. The piece appears in the Autumn 2017 issue Stanford Business, a magazine for alumni of Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Kinni quotes an observation by Jonker on how Engine of Impact is likely to resonate with members of that audience: “Stanford GSB alums are in a wonderful position to have a great deal of impact in the nonprofit sector. They will be familiar with many of the concepts in our book and, as donors and board members, they can make a big difference in the sector, even when they have day jobs outside the sector.”
The article is available here, at the Stanford GSB website; it’s also available here, as a PDF document. In both formats, the piece contains a brief excerpt from the book that outlines the “engine of impact” model.
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