From nonprofit CEO… to board member… to board chair… and now as co-owner of a consulting firm that focuses on issues related to organizational efficiency, growth, development, and change, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in board rooms. Perhaps no experience has re-shaped my thinking about the role of boards – and specifically board chairs – as much as my two-year term as the board chair of Together SC.
As my term comes to a close, I’ve taken some time to reflect on lessons learned, which might be best summarized by Board Source’s assessment that “…the board has an impact on organizational performance, and that two particular board characteristics matter most: the board’s understanding of its roles and responsibilities, and the board’s ability to work as a collaborative team toward shared goals.” – Leading With Intent, 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices
Here are a few personal observations that are intended to add some real-life context to this idea. Whether you are a nonprofit executive, current board member, or someone considering serving on a nonprofit board, I hope it helps.
1. Setting Expectations and Measuring Performance Matters.
I’m guessing your organization has expectations for itself (strategic plan) and its leader (annual goals, job description, etc.). The board may even conduct an annual performance review of the CEO. Crazy, right? Yet, personal experience tells me that such deliberately stated expectations and performance evaluations rarely exist for the board. Far too often, training, capacity building, and communication about board member expectations begins and ends at board orientation. It’s equally rare to find an organization with a formal plan to expand learning, encourage growth, and improve the performance of board members.
Together SC has developed a board dashboard to track board participation and engagement, and in my role as chair, I open every meeting with a quick review of where we are. It lists board attendance, participation in events, and individual giving. Keeping this information front-and-center helps hold us accountable. When there were gaps, I knew it was my responsibility as chair to pick up the phone and gently remind my fellow members of their commitments.
2. Succession Planning and Leadership Development Are Not Just for CEOs.
The importance of the relationship between an organization’s executive and its board chair is well documented, as is the importance of board chairs in defining organizational culture. Why then are board chair transitions not consistently met with the same rigor and effort that is put into pending executive transitions? Your organization probably has a succession plan for executives. But what about for the much more frequent transition of board chairs? Organizations would do themselves a favor to spend equal energy planning for and executing this annual(ish) transition.
Prior to beginning my term as Together SC’s board chair, I was fortunate to be able to spend time with, talk to, and learn from the outgoing chair. Those conversations expedited my learning curve. I also took the time to call each of my fellow board members personally to check in on their perceptions of the board and the future of the organization. Taking that time on the front end allowed me to be a better leader.
3. Every Board is a Giving Board.
I’ve lost count of the number of executives who tell me “our board is not a giving board.” Yet, even those organizations who say such a thing are familiar with the tried and true board adages “Time, Talent, Treasure” or “Give, Get, Get-Off.” In one case, giving is defined broadly to include time and talent; in the other, the meaning of give is more direct. In either case, giving (of something) is essential, and over time, I have become convinced that every board must position themselves as a “giving board.” Saying otherwise sends the wrong message to current members, future members, and those the organization serves.
Achieving 100% financial giving from board members is important, but I must admit it’s incredibly frustrating when giving financially is the ONLY criteria used to determine engagement. Beyond writing a check, board members also need to GIVE 100% of their time, energy, and positive representation they committed to when agreeing to serve. We have a term for those who write checks (thank you!) but contribute in no other substantive way. That term is donor, not board member.
4. Create space for meaningful engagement.
You are no doubt familiar with the governance functions a board is required to perform, but there is more to the story. Too often I see organization’s failing to create space for deeper, more meaningful dialogue and engagement. Rough calculations suggest that boards meet for 12-20 hours over the course of the year. Sometimes this is in monthly, one-hour meetings (12x1 = 12). Two of the boards I serve on meet only twice a year, but for the better part of a day each time (2x8 = 16). Many boards operate in the middle of these examples.
I’ll take some heat for advocating for longer meetings, but in the end, how can we expect to tackle the really difficult issues AND perform the governance functions of the organization in an hour or two? It’s simply not realistic. Thus, boards default to things that “must” be done (finance update, program report, etc.) and pass on the responsibility of having difficult discussions. In this all-too-common scenario, neither the board members nor organizational leadership feels fulfilled in their service.
At Together SC, one of my first acts as chair was to restructure our meetings to be four hours, four times a year (4x4 = 16). In the first two hours we focused on the traditional governance responsibilities while reserving the second half of the meeting to dive deep into an identified, single topic. This fundamentally changed the way our board approached meetings and significantly improved our level of engagement and thought on these identified key conversations. Trying to fly through a one hour monthly meeting short changes the deep thought required to actually lead… and it doesn’t do much for building relationships and rapport either.
5. Organizations Grow and Change - So Should Your Board.
Our firm does a lot of strategic planning work for nonprofits, and every engagement starts with the organization telling us they are looking for new, innovative strategies and approaches to propel their work forward. I’m always struck that very rarely is such a process followed (or preceded) by corresponding adjustments to board membership. Periodic check-ins to ensure that board members still align with you and where you are headed can have great value – for you and for them.
Organizational needs are constantly changing, and as a result, the type of board members you need is also changing. Many organizations allow board members to serve multiple terms of multiple years, and some don’t have term limits at all. I think about how much my personal journey has changed over the past decade – likely yours too. Some of my passions are the same, but other interests ebb and flow. A chance for all of us to check in and be sure our passions and visions are still aligned would benefit the organization and the board members sitting around the table.
At the end of a seven year run serving on Together SC’s board, I’m proud to say that neither the organization nor Forrest are the same as they were when that service began. Frankly, if they were, I’d have lots of questions.
6. Make a Commitment.
Now for some real talk, board member to board member. Counting Together SC, I currently serve on three boards. Sometimes I’m worried that it’s two too many. My time as Together SC’s board chair reaffirmed just how much organizations need us to be present. When board meetings and subcommittee meetings don’t have quorums and can’t act, the organization suffers. When big discussions are planned and half the board doesn’t show, the organization suffers. When board members are counted on to reach out to a donor and don’t follow through, the organization suffers.
So, do us all a favor. Start saying “no.” If you can’t commit, that’s OK, we’d rather know on the front end. I have endless respect for my friends and colleagues over the years who have stepped up and said “you know what, I just don’t have the time to commit to this right now.” But, if you decide to serve on a board, then please, commit to that service 100%. Until I was the one taking the time required to plan agendas and lead board meetings, I short changed how important it is to own that truth!
A note to the executives on this point: when someone is being truthful to you and suggests they are over committed, here’s the appropriate response sequence… shake hands, say thank you, and move on. Please stop trying to convince us to join/stay on the board or the committee by telling us we won’t have that much to do. It sends the wrong message to everyone involved (see #3 above).
PS ~ I did a presentation last year at the Aspen Action Forum (Aspen, CO) that highlighted many of these same ideas. You can download the corresponding handout here. And, of course, I welcome your comments and feedback on anything I’ve shared here. Just email me at Forrest@1000feathers.com.