What Makes Good Boards Good?

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graphic depicting the role of a board of directors

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.

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.

Good Board Members

What does it mean to be a good board member?

Attend meetings. Showing up means you matter. Absence undercuts your authority and value.

Support the organization.  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.

Good Meetings

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 Leadership

Effective leaders run good meetings.

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 Structure

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 further in eblast 7.)

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.

Good Recruiting

Some good boards come together by luck. Most good boards are intentionally built.

Be strategic. Start by listing areas of expertise needed on your board, from legal and financial, to marketing and merchandising, to architecture and real estate, and more. Then list the social, political and geographic circles important to your advocacy and fundraising. Match the current roster to identified needs and then work to fill the gaps.

Clarify obligations. A job description for board members sets roles and responsibilities at the get-go: meeting attendance, program participation, financial obligation, committee service and other basics of good governance should be spelled out and applied consistently “across the board.”

Provide an orientation. Formally on-board new members, individually or in groups. Tour facilities, introduce constituents, schedule sit-down time with key staff, and review your nonprofit’s financials thoroughly.

Reward good behavior. Praise board members regularly, publicly and in print, to recognize and reinforce behaviors important to your nonprofit’s success. Everyone likes a pat on the back. Good behavior can be contagious.

Groom leadership. Make committee assignments and select committee chairs with an eye toward their leadership potential as officers. Assigning a promising board member to lead a temporary task force is a great way to test potential.

Review performance. Sit down with each board member annually and ask them to make a commitment of time, money and action. A report card or gentler self-evaluation form at the end of each year helps clarify what’s expected and gives each board member an opportunity to succeed.

Taking Stock

Good boards have systems in place for measuring board performance.

Job descriptions. Like employees, board members are more likely to perform well when there are clearly understood expectations that they’ve agreed to meet.

Orientation. “Onboarding” is an apt term for the orientation each incoming member should enjoy. A facilities tour, an insider’s look at programs, a sit-down with the CFO, and an updated board manual are key elements.

Annual agreements. Ask each board member to make a specific and measurable commitment of time, treasure and talent each year…in writing! The document doubles as a report card that charts an individual’s performance against their own commitment at year end.

Board self-evaluation. An anonymous self-evaluation is easily administered online to help the board take a step back as a whole and evaluate its performance and deficits.