Thursday, October 22, 2009

Govern Like a Jazz Group: A Core Chart for Optimal Flow in Nonprofit Governance

Does it get any better than this? Many of us spend plenty of time looking for good analogies or strong metaphor; that connection to enhance our communication and really express our feelings. Brian Fraser, of Jazzthink, really hit the nail on the head with this article. It's not something that you can necessarily quantify, but we all know (because we feel it) when the rythyms are working and everyone is in harmony. Conversely, we also instinctively know when they're not. Love this article, take it to your next board meeting! Bunnie

Govern Like a Jazz Group: A Core Chart for
Optimal Flow in Nonprofit Governance

by Brian Fraser, Ph.D., "Lead Provocateur"

Think of the last board meeting you participated in at one of the nonprofits in which you are involved. On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being highest), rate the flow of the meeting. Think of flow as a process in which the achievement of purpose progresses unimpeded. It’s something like a stream with no debris in it flowing smoothly to its destination. It’s also like a jazz performance in which all the musicians are in sync and their instruments blend harmoniously into a toe-tapping, body-swaying performance. To get a sense of how that looks and feels, click here to enjoy Jamaican piano virtuoso Monty Alexander and his group playing Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.”

In the liner notes to his Impressions in Blue album, Alexander offered an astute description of jazz, identifying five elements that go together in creating optimal flow in great jazz. Taken together, they constitute a core chart of the key notes (the basic melody and rhythm sheet of music from which jazz musicians play) in engaging and effective governance. They describe optimal flow in nonprofit governance as well.

“Jazz, at its best,” writes Alexander, “is a situation in which participants willingly support each other, working together as one, each player bringing virtuosity, optimism, mutual respect, good will, and the desire to make it feel good.” [Emphasis added.]

Let’s take a closer look at each element as it applies to the flow of nonprofit governance.


Each member of the board brings a particular set of talents to contribute. In most cases, those talents have been honed through deliberate practice over many years. The person who has those talents comes onto the board to use them in the service of the organization’s purpose. It will take some orientation time, sage advice, and intentional support to assess and decide together how best to deploy those talents to achieve the organization’s aspirations. But if your board does not have a clear process for matching talents to tasks in the operation of your organization, put that on the agenda of your next meeting. You are wasting your greatest asset – the virtuosity of your board members. Board members who are frustrated at not being able to offer their best to the success of your organization will not be fully engaged in willingly supporting your work.


The jazz musicians with whom I have worked most closely at Jazzthink are born optimists. Prior to a performance, they are loose, jocular, and positive about the potential they are about to achieve in their performance. They know their instruments and how to use they to the best advantage when they are playing together. They are sensitive to and appreciative of the audiences for whom they are playing. They anticipate the best. If something goes wrong in the midst of the performance, they have the confidence, based on experience, to find ways to overcome the problem and get things back on track. The best boards on which I have served and with whom I have worked thought and behaved the same.

Mutual Respect

Respect is the oil that keeps different personalities working smoothly together. If respect for the varying virtuosities of each board member and for the potential of them all flowing together smoothly is not present, your board will not be working together as effectively and efficiently as it can in helping people change their lives. Time, money, and opportunities will be wasted.

Unfettered conflict around ideas about the best ways of doing things is essential. If that conflict starts to center around personalities, either within your own head, or at the table, or over coffee, you’re in trouble. In the midst of the current challenges being faced by nonprofits, both in terms of emerging needs and dwindling resources, you can’t afford that. Valuing the virtuosity you have gathered and the power of mutuality to enable you to continuously improve your performance is foundational to finding the kind of flow we are considering and achieving the impact you desire.

Good Will

Closely aligned with mutual respect, good will has to do with the intent you bring to the table. You were invited to sit on the board and probably said yes in order to work together with others to willingly support all those in the organization who help to change lives through whatever the organization does. Keeping that intention in mind in every situation that comes to the board, no matter how conflicted or pressured the board may be, will model the good will needed to work through the functions of the board to guide and monitor well the performance of the organization. Jazz musicians who are wrapped up in their egos, or who insist on their own way all the time, or bring their own idiosyncratic agendas to the performance too often simply are not invited to play with the group again. I know it’s not easy to fire a volunteer board member, but sometimes it’s necessary. Don’t agree to or continue to play with people lacking or unwilling to develop any of these elements of optimal flow in nonprofit governance.

The Desire to Make it Feel Good

Jason Koransky, long-time editor of DownBeat, once said, “Jazz ain’t supposed to make you frown.” I think the same should be said about nonprofit governance. People should leave a board meeting feeling a deep satisfaction for having accomplished significant things that strengthen the capacity of their organization to do its good work. Smiles rather than frowns should grace their faces. To achieve this in the midst of the disagreements, crises, pressures, and tensions that mark any gathering of people with the responsibility to attend to fiduciary, strategic, and generative matters relating to a nonprofit’s success requires exceptional self-management. You have to pay attention to how you show up and seek support from your colleagues on how to show up better. The good purpose of your organization deserves that kind of effort.

You Are All Jazz Musicians

Here’s the connection. You co-create this quality of nonprofit governance through the conversations that you have, especially those in your meetings. Donald Schön, professor of urban studies and education at MIT and an accomplished jazz musicians himself, pointed out that the most common form of jazz or improvisation in human experience is ordinary conversation. Your instrument is your voice. Every time you engage in conversation, you use vocabulary and grammar differently, improvising with them to create something new. The intent with which you engage in conversation and the deliberate practice you undertake to continuously improve the results determines the positive contribution you make in any endeavor. That is especially true in finding the optimal flow of good governance in your nonprofit organization. The reality is that you are all governing like a jazz group. You can all work together like Monty Alexander’s group to support the purpose of your organization. The question is “How great are you willing to sound together with your colleagues?”

Dr. Brian Fraser is lead provocateur of Jazzthink. He speaks, consults, and coaches with nonprofit organizations and their leaders using the wisdom and workings of jazz to help them imagine better ways of serving the common good. He sits on the board of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management and is on the governance and leadership training team at Volunteer Vancouver. Visit his website at This article originally appeared on Charity Channel. Re-printed here with permission of the author.

1 comment:

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