Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What makes an effective nonprofit board?

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

There has been a dramatic shift in how nonprofits answered that question in the past decade. A board’s impact has often been measured by tangible participation – financial contributions and attending meetings. Although these two factors are still important, it’s no longer enough.

Today board members must have a full understanding of a nonprofit’s mission and be committed to it. They must be willing to share their individual expertise to further advance that mission. They must be willing to roll up their sleeves and move an organization forward.

“Particularly after the recession, if a nonprofit is going to survive, its board has to be strong,” said Kim Donahue, director of agency services at United Way of Central Indiana. From her vantage point, working with United Way agencies and their partners, Donahue sees more boards operating at this higher level.

“There’s been a steady march toward being more efficient and effective. It’s more than a glimmer of hope, it is a real trend,” said Donahue. “It’s kind of odd to say, but sometimes crisis motivates the board like nothing else.”

Lena Hackett has also witnessed this shift. She is founder and president of Indianapolis-based Community Solutions Inc. and her consulting firm has been working with organizations, locally, regionally and nationally for 14 years.  Locally, she attributes it to more training and recruiting the right people. In fact, she has seen people turn down board positions after they thoughtfully considered the commitment.

“I think for probably a decade, we were stuck on what a board should be -- how many people should be on your board, and what kinds of people should be on your board,” Hackett said. She tells boards to look for members who can help move an organization’s agenda ahead, not just recruit prominent people.

One of the outcomes of these changes Hackett has seen is more nimble and involved boards.

“I think organizations are less tolerate of board members who are not active. You know they come to a board meeting, and hear reports and leave, and don’t think about the organization again until the next time they come to a board meeting,” she said.

Both Hackett’s and Donahue’s work with nonprofit boards is designed to strengthen their effectiveness.

Donahue often begins her work by asking each board member to complete a simple assessment that evaluates their personal performance. After reviewing their responses, she facilitates a discussion to help board members understand how their performance affects their roles. Over the past 8 years, she has completed the process with 17 boards.

“I find that board members are very honest in assessment, partially because it’s anonymous and partially because they know it’s a tool for them,” said Donahue. Another tactic she thinks is important is for individual members to annually sign an expectation contract, reviewing what it means to be a board member.

Hackett starts her process with the results the board wants to achieve.

“We do individual board interviews and have people identify where they feel they have spheres of influence -- where they have ability to have impact, influence or leverage. We work with a board on action accountability,” she said.

After the board decides on an action or goal, each member is asked to put their commitment in writing and give it to the board chair or executive director. The next meeting starts with a progress report sharing personal actions. In Hackett’s results’ model, board members hold each other accountable.

As part of her firm’s process, after working with a nonprofit, they stay connected in a coaching role for up to 90 days.

“Our experience is that change is easier for people to do on paper, but once they start to implement it, it gets very hard. So to have a coach there at a board meeting, and in between, coaching them on issues that come up, is just key to what we do,” said Hackett.

Another significant change that Donahue has seen is the elimination of nominating committees. Boards opt instead for a governance committee, which has broader responsibilities and includes board education and recruiting community members for committees. Often, they find the latter develops a pipeline of future board members. By involving non-board members on committees, community members get a chance to learn about the nonprofit, and in turn the board gets a chance to see who’s really engaged and a worker bee.

“Being able to recruit from committees is a great thing. It happens more often in larger nonprofits than it does in smaller nonprofits, but even the smaller are starting to adopt it,” said Donahue.

Boards are also encouraged to scout for future talent outside their immediate circles.

“How many times have you heard a nonprofit say, ‘It’s a well kept secret.’ If you keep recruiting from the same circle, you will remain a well-kept secret,” said Donahue. She recommends events like Get on Board because it widens the pool and immediate sphere.  Some nonprofits have had informal meet-and-greets for people who are interested in board membership.

Hackett sees the relationship between board and an organization unique and recommends potential board members go to a meeting and see the personal interactions.

“I consider a board relationship with an organization a fairly intimate relationship. If you’re just looking to get on a board, be discerning a little bit because it’s a lot of work. See how the chemistry feels,” she said.

Donahue believes in real work for the board, and has additional recommendations for on-going engagement.

“At every board meeting, some part of strategic plan should be discussed. It doesn’t have to be the whole plan. Review one of the goals on the plan and ask: How are we doing on this? Do we need to adjust the deadlines.” Additionally talking about future directions or the organization’s vision is also empowering.

“We trap them in the here and now, always bantering them to raise money, badger them for this and that,” Donahue said. “Give them an opportunity to look at the future: What do we see happening in the next three to five years? What could this become? What do we need to do to get there?”

Donahue said one phrase that sticks in her head. “Boards are the keepers of quality.”


TIPS for improving board members’ experience

  • Provide new members with a packet that clearly outlines roles and responsibilities.
  • Remember that often a new board member feels like they walked into the middle of a conversation. Provide them with a year’s of board minutes.
  • Give them information early and often.
  • Help them understand the differences in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. One good tool is Jim Collins’ “Good to Great in Social Sectors,” a small monograph.
  • Remember that a terrific board cannot make up for a weak CEO. It’s the board’s responsibility to hire the best possible CEO and evaluate him or her regularly.

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