What Makes Good Boards Good
Good Structure (5th in a series of 7)
Nonprofits large and small struggle with this question: how can we improve the performance of our board as a cohesive governing body, and our board members as individual contributors to the organization’s success?
It may be difficult to offer pointed criticism to a well-meaning group; it can be easier to introduce well-accepted performance standards and encourage the board to meet them.
This series of seven eblasts offers guidance around high performance for boards and board members that should be easy to follow and share.
What structures might help a board perform effectively?
Boards are more likely to perform their duties effectively when there’s an effective underlying structure.
Let committees do the work. Well-composed committees (four to five members each) should drive the core business of the board, including budget review and approvals, annual audits, investment management, governance oversight and nominations, executive oversight and fundraising. Committees meet to do the work, then report and recommend action to the full board.
Staff the board. Make it easy for board members to focus on substance by providing staff support. Meeting preparation, logistics, issues research, meeting notes, and board reports are all staff jobs.
Inform regularly. Communication from the CEO to the board should be frequent and pithy. Regular updates (never more than a page) can make board members feel like insiders. Regular communications also guard against claims of ignorance about new programs, initiatives, grants, citations, etc.
Track performance. Board members uphold their obligations more when they’ve agreed to a personal annual performance plan, and receive a tracking report each year. (To be discussed in a future eblast.)
Make time to socialize. Get board members and their spouses/partners together periodically to develop between them an ease and familiarity. Examples: receptions, travel programs, group lunches, celebratory dinners and recognition events.
Retreat! An annual off-site planning session is useful for setting and re-setting board/staff relations and organizational priorities. Retreats should also be used by the board to set its own annual goals, away from the press of regular business.
In two weeks: What Makes Good Boards Good? Good Recruiting
Good Board Meetings (4th in a series of 7)
How do good meetings happen?
Board members are more likely to show when meetings are substantive and one’s presence makes a difference.
Three key ingredients. Every board member should leave each meeting with a feeling that a) there was substantive discussion to which s/he contributed, b) there was a vote that required his/her presence, and c) s/he learned something stimulating to share outside the board room.
Advance materials. Staff should transmit in advance a complete set of board materials including a timed agenda and brief (!) backgrounders in preparation for discussion and decision. No one should complain: “This is the first I’m hearing of it!”
Choreograph. Put agenda items in a carefully curated order that gets everyone engaged early on. Initiate consideration of the most important items within 30 to 45 minutes. By then, stragglers have arrived, attention is most focused, and meeting fatigue is still far away.
Employ written reports. Use written reports (especially from the CEO) for anything not requiring discussion or debate. Nothing deadens a meeting more than a string of oral reports that don’t require action.
Find reason to celebrate! Feeling good about staff, fellow board members and organizational achievements is one of the joys of voluntary leadership. Use celebration to strengthen cohesion.
Good Board Members (3rd in a series of 7)
What does it take to be a good leader?
Effective leadership starts with running a good meeting. Here’s a simple check list:
Begin with praise. Open every meeting with kudos to board members for personal, professional and nonprofit-related accomplishments. Do the same for key staff. Everyone likes to be recognized. Praise is a powerful tool.
Use talking points. A script or list of talking points ensures you won’t miss a key message over the course of a meeting.
Manage a balanced conversation. A leader’s effectiveness can lie in facilitating rather than imposing resolution. Toggle between positions and viewpoints expressed by board members so they hear a balanced debate on issues. Encourage quieter voices to rise by calling on those more hesitant to speak.
Keep time. When discussion becomes vociferous, look at a clock and state the time by which you’ll end debate. There’s a law of diminishing returns in extended conversation; votes are unlikely to change after an initial exchange of ideas is complete.
Be last to speak. The chair’s voice can be the loudest, and it may silence those reluctant to differ. So save it up for summary, which is a great time to put your position forward.
Always conclude with “to dos.” Keep a list as the meeting progresses and repeat or make assignments as your wrap up. You reinforce your role in oversight and leave no room for next-steps uncertainty.
Good Board Members (2nd in a series of 7)
What does it mean to be a good board member
Here’s a primer.
Attend meetings. Showing up means you matter. Absence undercuts your authority and value.
Support the organization. Contribute financially, to the best of your ability and at every opportunity; skin in the game amplifies your voice at the table.
Be prepared. Read materials in advance. Develop well-considered questions to move the dialogue forward in a board discussion.
Get informed. Visit your organization, institution or agency periodically to see it in action. Sign up for blogs and publications, and attend conferences relevant to your nonprofit’s field as well as those on good governance. Knowledge is power.
Know your role. A board’s job is to a) hire and supervise the CEO, b) with the CEO, establish strategic vision and policy, c) provide financial oversight and secure resources, and d) strengthen external relationships.
Avoid operations. Programming, management and operations may be tempting areas of concern. But leave that to the professional staff.
An Introduction (1st in a series of 7)
What are the attributes of high performing boards?
Good boards have good board members. Trustees or directors are active and engaged. They attend meetings, contribute meaningfully, make appropriate connections and fulfill clear obligations that enrich the nonprofit consistent with its mission and vision.
Good boards have good leaders. The chair or president is respected as a consensus builder and an exemplar of the behaviors expected of members. The board leader works effectively and closely with the CEO, and the two have a shared commitment to mission and vision.
Good boards have good meetings. They start and end on time. They are skillfully led. They encourage discussion and debate fed by information that is timely, focused and thorough.
Good boards are served by good committees. The real work of the board is done by a small number of productive committees that meet regularly. Detailed discussions on policy, budget, capital expenditures, governance and executive issues happen in committee first.
Good boards are attuned to the concerns of regulators, accreditors and auditors. They are conversant with externally imposed rules and standards and they foreground those concerns in partnership with professional staff rather than in opposition.
Good boards have good communications. Civil discourse in person, transparent and regular communications between meetings, and periodic opportunities for casual interaction in social settings make it much easier to get the job done.