As preparation for being a father, I backed off my involvement with a couple nonprofits. I resigned from the board of the Urban Conservancy and did not seek re-election as Communications Director for the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization. I still believe in these groups’ missions; I just felt I needed to make time for being a dad, not to mention finishing up our renovation.
But with one organization, I didn’t back off. In fact, I stepped up. I’m talking about Friends of Lafitte Corridor. I’m now honored to be serving as the chair for this nonprofit corporation. (We just got our 501(c)3 status, so it’s legal.) I decided to stay involved with FOLC because it’s closest to my heart as an organization that I helped found, still a fledgling but with a lot of momentum.
Beyond that, I felt a personal calling to stick my neck out and exercise a little more leadership. Thus I volunteered to chair the organization. This is not something I take lightly. So I thought I’d just take a moment to reflect publicly on my philosophy.
Some people are confused by organizations that include both a president and a chair. However, I think this structure makes a lot of sense. I see the president as an executive position, primarily focused on taking actions to advance the organization’s mission. The vice-president and at-large board members also serve this function. The chair, on the other hand, like the Treasurer and Secretary, focuses on the organization’s internal processes.
I’m not some kind of wonky process geek, no matter what my friends say. I want to see results and a final product just like everyone else. But I think I do have slightly more of an orientation toward process than most people, and so I put myself forward to fill this role.
This means putting my own desires and my own personal opinions on the back burner, and focusing on the group process. It also means maintaining a focus on the “big picture” — the mission — and not getting bogged down in executive details. And let’s face it, there are a lot of details involved in such an ambitious project as we have set for ourselves: the building of a three-mile urban greenway. The executive board members have their work cut out for them.
As chair, my primary responsibility within FOLC is running the monthly board meetings and the quarterly membership meetings. Anybody who’s been to a poorly organized meeting (haven’t we all?) knows how painful and exhausting they can be. But a well-run meeting can leave people feeling energized and confident that the organization is moving in the right direction. My guidebook is the Democratic Rules of Order, which I recommend unreservedly to anyone who participates in meetings on a regular basis. I wouldn’t wish Robert’s Rules on my worst enemy.
Over the course of time conflicts will emerge in any group. With a fair process in place, these conflicts can be resolved. But people have to believe in the process. They also have to trust that the chair is impartial and will treat all sides fairly. In other words, the chair can’t have a dog in the fight. It’s important for the chair to remain somewhat aloof from the issues, from the actual substance of the organization’s business.
For example, I generally try to avoid bringing motions myself. Better to let others bring the motions and debate them; let the chair focus on the process of the meeting, making sure discussion is proceeding in a civil and timely fashion, and that matters are put to a vote when the time is right.
Because an efficient meeting requires a coherent agenda, I’ve also taken on the responsibility for setting the agenda for each meeting. It’s tricky to set the agenda without advancing my own ideas about what the organization should do. My tactic is to simply compile the agenda, taking direction from other board members. Most recently, in an effort to maintain focus and efficiency, I’ve taken to asking for any “new business” items to be submitted in the form of a motion, in writing. I worried this might be a little too formal, but I think it is actually working out pretty well.
As chair, you may find that I don’t always know every last detail of what we as an organization are doing. But please don’t think that I don’t care or that I’m absent-minded (even though I am). It’s because the cognitive resources which I’m devoting to FOLC are focused on our internal processes instead. I’m trying to make sure that our organization functions in a way that is both efficient and equitable, that we stay on mission and act in accordance with our core values. So if you have a concern regarding process, by all means bring it to me and I will do what I can to make it right. If you have suggestions on how to better conduct our meetings, let me know.
PS: Of course you’re welcome to discuss any of these lofty matters when you join us for the 4th Annual Hike of the Lafitte Corridor this Saturday morning.