What do boards do that drive us bonkers? Oh, let us count the ways:
- They don’t show up. Or they’re late. Or unprepared.
- When it comes time to take on a leadership role, suddenly, everyone finds their lap fascinating!
- They fail to make an annual gift, or to make one that reflects their capacity
- They want you to make budget cuts, but aren’t willing to help raise more money
- They wander off topic and off agenda
You get the picture.
If your board stinks, it’s probably not their fault.
In all likelihood, it’s ours.
Yup, you and I are probably at least partly to blame for our under-performing board.
The good news? No matter whose fault it is, there are things we can do – starting right now – to help our board improve their performance!
Let’s start with composition. Who’s on the board? Why are they there? How long have they been there? What exactly are they contributing?
What other types of people are needed? Where might we find them? Please don’t keep people on the board just to fill seats – it’s better to have a small board that’s engaged than a large board peppered with “dead wood.”
Strategic recruitment is key to building a stronger, more active board. The #1 criteria for selection should be passion. If your board cares about the cause, they’re usually be willing to learn the skills needed to be a productive board member.
Diverse boards (in all senses of the word — age, gender, race, income level, skill sets, life experience, etc.) have access to multiple perspectives, skills, attitudes & cultures. Channeled correctly, this leads to creativity & innovation. Given the demographic and generational shifts going on in the US, rethinking composition is imperative.
The easiest way to build a diverse and robust board is to engage in recruitment year-round. All board members keep their periscopes up for potential nominees, which can then be vetted by a subcommittee. Rather than wait for the annual meeting, consider bringing “hot prospects” on board after they’ve been properly vetted.
Next, let’s take a look at expectations. Do board members understand their roles & responsibilities? Have individual and group expectations been outlined clearly (& in writing)? Many times, when I’m reviewing roles & responsibilities with board members, they say, “I had no idea that’s what I was supposed to be doing!” Discussing roles & responsibilities during the recruitment process goes a long way toward building an effective board.
Are your board members helping? If not, it’s most likely because we haven’t yet figured out what kind of contribution they can or want to make. Don’t be shy about asking board members to help out — many board members prefer being asked to take on a specific task (or tasks), because it gives them a concrete way to contribute.
Can they help? If the answer is “no,” then is it an issue of capacity? Confidence? Or (as most of us assume) a lack of willingness? Many times, board members want to contribute, but are not getting the guidance, training or support they need to do so.
If a board member is not engaged, it’s our job to get to know them & ask what kind of contribution would be meaningful & feasible for them to make (I’m not just talking money here – board members have lots of gifts they can bring to the party).
A word about size: it matters! The size of your board is very much like the tale of Goldilocks. Too big & we’re inviting observers and “hangers on.” Too small & there aren’t enough people to do the work & it’s nearly impossible to gain momentum. We need the size of our board to be “just right.”
The size of the average nonprofit board these days is 15. The ideal learning group is 9-13 people. There’s no hard & fast rule as to how many people you must have on your board (although it is dictated by your by-laws – which can be changed) – but in general, a group of 9-15 is a good place to start.
Structure can create unintentional barriers to engagement. If all of the leadership is concentrated in a four-person Executive Committee (President, VP, Treasurer & Clerk/Secretary), it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the development or exercise of leadership across the board. This structure also sends the signal that everyone else is off the hook. There are myriad ways to structure a board & to disseminate leadership so that everyone is making a contribution.
Finally, a word about agendas. Did you know that the traditional agenda used at board meetings is called a Liturgical Agenda? While I’m sure that there are some very inspirational clergy out there, my experience is that most people who attend religious services check their watch (or phone) at least once to see how much time is left. Can the same be said for our board members? By the time we get to New Business, isn’t everyone pretty much itching to get out the door?
If we want our board members to be engaged & make a contribution, we need to create space for that to happen. There are at least 7 types of meeting agendas out there, but my favorite is the Consent Agenda, which allows you to sweep all reports off the agenda in a single vote (provided there are no questions – if so, that report gets pulled from the vote & discussed in greater detail after the others have been voted on). That leaves the rest of the meeting to discuss…New Business! Voila! You have just created a whole lot of time & space for training, discussion, projects, etc. Woot!
An engaged, active board can help us fulfill our mission in new – & sometimes surprising – ways. Yet in study after study, Executive Directors & Directors of Development cite poor board performance as one of their top challenges. Most boards are doing their best to help — so if they’re underperforming, maybe it’s time for us to put them to work!
Get in touch with us if you’d like some help building a better board!