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December 8, 2014 - Kim Moore [see other posts]

Board Members

Nonprofit Boards

Our board was with us two days last week for committee meetings, full board meeting and retirement events for Virginia Elliott, Vice-President for Programs here at United Methodist Health Ministry Fund. Part of the board work was considering new board members and developing a recruitment plan to secure the skills, connections and passion we want in those new members. There is surely nothing I can say which has not been said dozens of times about nonprofit boards but, to my way of thinking, what has been said has not sunk in enough for many, many nonprofits. This justifies saying some of it again.

Good boards are a joint project for the chief executive officer and board leadership. Often, when I hear nonprofit executives complain about their boards, I have minimal sympathy because the executives have operated with a "hands-off" mentality and get what their zero board development effort merits: an unengaged board or, worse, a problem board. Nonprofit executives are responsible for providing board education opportunities, encouraging board self-assessment at regular intervals, maintaining appropriate inter-personal connections with board members and trolling for good prospects for board membership to present to the board. Working with the board chair, executives should attempt to see that each board meeting has three elements: important decisions needing the collegial thinking of the board, interesting information about the field of endeavor or board operations, and inspirational, uplifting moments reflecting the organization's positive mission. Too many nonprofit board meetings are "whine-ins" about what is not available financially, the difficult clients served, the failure of board members to perform fundraising, the heavy hand of government, etc.

Not infrequently, nonprofit governance problems are centered in particular individuals on the board. Sometimes it is lifers where there are no term limits, but it can also be the newcomer who brings other board experiences which she/he believes are "the only right way" things can be done. Problem people on the board become work for the formal board leadership and, if problems are in the formal board leadership, the other board members. The executive may have to play a role, but the executive's participation will frequently be behind the scenes. The right people have to be on the bus. Boards need to have term limits, written and enforced attendance and participation expectations (communicated when people are invited to serve), shared written self-assessments, feedback mechanisms such as short meeting evaluation forms, etc. The role of the typical nominating committee should be expanded into a board governance committee where members who understand good board culture are appointed and empowered to instruct on best practices and propose cultural changes where necessary for good governance.

Fundamentally it will be the developing organizational culture which determines whether the board adds value for the mission of the organization or is only a fiduciary with marginalized benefit to the executive and the organization. Board cultures differ widely. What is viewed as a board decision in one organization will be seen as a management (staff) issue in another. One board has committees which by their very existence intrude into management -- personnel, facilities, operations, etc. Another has only committees with names like finance, development, executive, governance, and planning, keeping most board discussions at policy levels. One type of board agenda fosters discussion and another fills with reports. Some organizations plan opportunities for board members and staff to travel together to national and regional conferences. Other organizations view board travel as an unnecessary expense, and there are executives who prefer their board members not interact with other similar groups. Some boards are never able to have significant blocks of time (2-day retreats) to get to know one another and focus on their board contribution to the organization. Others plan regular retreats and group experiences where time and exposure blend into commonality of mission. Overall, I think isolation versus exposure is a likely indicator of weak board culture.

My final word is a very simple one. Good boards and capable nonprofit executives desiring to have strong board cultures adding value to the work of the organization operate with one critical understanding: we don't yet have it right. Good boards are always thinking about how they can be better. They work hard at recruitment of new people who have diversity of age, class, race/ethnicity, career experiences and geography (when appropriate) and balance in gender. Good boards are learning communities sharing common experiences and mutual passion. Hence, they want to get better with a particular focus of stronger organizational ability to fultill its mission with effectiveness and scale.

I work for a good board but we have things to learn together and the potential to be even better.