Building a High Performing Board

4 Mar

By Terry Horton, senior program advisor to Philanthropic and Nonprofit Services at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy

Knowbility Board Members + KatrinaME
CC image courtesy of schipul on Flickr.

For some Executive Directors, managing a nonprofit organization is harder than it should be. What adds that unneeded layer of challenge? Oftentimes, it is the board. Nonprofit boards are made up of volunteers. We appreciate them, so it’s tough to say, but boards can be a stumbling block to effective leadership and management rather than a help. How can we turn this around?

  1. Expectations for board service are clear, and the identification and onboarding of new board members is thoughtful and thorough. People who say yes to board service really want to do a good job. How do we make this easier for them? First, we are upfront with the commitment we really need. We share the job description that goes to all board members, but we also talk about the specific skills, relationships, and diversity that this new board member has and how we think that will be important to our organization. If you’re recruiting a CPA, don’t assume he or she wants to be the next treasurer. Be sure to ask and communicate the unique job description anticipated for that unique individual. Have an onboarding process that shares mission and values, corporate culture, strategic direction, the job description, the founding story, and other background. At a second meeting, share the bylaws and the audited financials. That first meeting should help inspire and clarify expectations. The second orientation meeting can clarify the legal ins and outs.
  2. Board service feels good when mission comes first, and when we know and trust each other. Nonprofit boards that function well are satisfying for the board members yielding a high level of trust and camaraderie amongst board members. Those silly icebreakers at the beginning of a meeting that some people say they hate? Do them. When we’ve taken the time to get to know each other and we all trust that we’re here for the best interest of the mission, the tough discussions that emerge over time are much easier. Most of us serve on boards because we want to give back. Of course, we also realize that some of us like the social aspect of being on the board, or the prestige, or the learning opportunity. We honor those additional reasons for serving too. Build time into the agenda for learning together, and getting to know each other, as well as discussing and deciding key strategic issues.
  3. We use our time together wisely. When we’re trying to attract and retain the best talent to our board, we need to make sure that the time we spend together in the board room is meaningful and useful. Committee work is done in advance, not in the boardroom. Time-limited task forces get needed board homework accomplished in advance, so that the discussions and decisions are at the right strategic level to move the organization forward. Send out the board packet at least a week in advance, be sure it can be read in 30 minutes or less, then use a consent agenda rather than listening to report reading that have already been submitted in writing. This frees up board time to discuss key indicators of success related to the strategic plan, to share mission moments, to learn together, and to discuss and decide key decisions that we might have formerly not had enough time to really get into.
  4. Make sure there are no elephants in the room. We talk about stuff. The right stuff. We’re comfortable enough with each other to actually talk about the tough strategic issues that have to be addressed, such as whether our economic engine is robust and functioning, or whether we need additional fund development strategies. We are also able to address any dysfunction that might impede our success. We actively create and maintain the kind of corporate culture we want in our board room, and in our organization.
  5. We have a shared vision for the future that is going to fundamentally shift condition for our clients and our community. Board governance is the most fun, and the most functional, when we are crystal clear on where we’re headed, and where we’re headed is energizing and inspiring not just to us, but to our staff, and our clients and community. Governance is more fun when we’re actually doing meaningful work well.

How does it feel to be on your board?

Readers in the Grand Rapids, Mich. area may be interested in the “High Performing Boards” workshop Terry will be leading on April 2. Registration information is available here.

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