Over my twenty years in the nonprofit sector I have held different seats at the governance table.
As a member of an all-volunteer organization, I’ve experienced serving on a board that worked essentially as the staff. As an Executive Director of a nonprofit, I experienced a relationship with the board as my boss. While serving as a board chair, I was the leader of the board. In my professional work as a consultant, I am brought in to support boards in reaching their greatest potential.
What have I learned based on my experience in each of these roles? Your organization is only as healthy as your board.
When boards and board members are working in coordination with staff, the organization has leveraged the talents, and resources of 10-20 more people…for free!
When boards and board members are not working in coordination with staff, the organization stalls out.
I have seen the latter dysfunctional situation often as both a board member and as a consultant. In these situations, staff start to work around or ignore the board, viewing the board as “a necessary evil.” Board members wonder why the Executive isn’t “doing as they say.”
So what are the key elements to an effective board-executive partnership? Although it was originally written for the corporate sector, the work of David Nadler, Beverly Behan and Mark Nadler, published by the Harvard Business Review on Building Better Boards, is a timeless resource for building engaged boards.
Key Elements of an Engaged Board
1. The Mind-Set: Board-building is an ongoing activity, continuous improvement means annual self-assessments.
2. The Role: The board needs to be an engaged partner with the chief executive and playing the correct role for each situation. Is it a fiduciary role, strategic role or generative role? This resource explores the role of Governance as Leadership.
3. The Work: Identify the areas where the board can add the greatest value and focus attention here.
4. The People: The right people are not merely based on technical expertise but other competencies related to programs, external environment, quality of input and style of interaction.
5. The Agenda: Agendas dictate the work of the board. “show and tells” kill board meetings and crowd out time for serious and important discussions. Boards need to find ways to engage with the organization outside of official meetings so “show and tells” during meetings can be limited.
6. The Information: Boards can be left in the dark by either too much information to digest or information malnutrition. I have seen board tomes of 300 pages! Don’t only be a “recipient” of information but seek it out. Board members should be encouraged to collect and share information that they have identified externally.
7. The Culture: Robert’s Rules of Order are great obstacles to an engaged board. Use them sparingly. Engaged board cultures are characterized by candor, willingness to challenge thinking (respectfully), camaraderie, and teamwork.