First published in Mass Nonprofit News Expert Advice , March 13, 2019.
Maximizing board effectiveness is absolutely essential to nonprofit success, but hoping that your board will operate as a highly effective executive team won’t make it happen.
Highly effective boards add tremendous value to the organizations they govern and grow. They can spot opportunities for partnerships and synergies, groom, coach, and recruit talent, identify and cultivate donors, avert disaster by managing brewing problems, advocate for their nonprofits, and do plenty of other good things too.
Dysfunctional boards, on the other hand, can be significantly destructive by demoralizing their management teams through micromanaging personnel and program decisions, putting organizations at risk by ignoring financial and legal red flags, and dampening fundraising and recruiting efforts by letting their internal challenges leak out in public or to staff.
While every board is different, there is a series of questions to ask of current and prospective directors, and steps to take in response that lead to measurable improvements.
Do each of the directors have the specific functional skills they need to succeed in their role as director now?
Identify all functional skill gaps (you may need to start with identifying the functional skills your board needs before you do your assessment) and build your plan for filling them. Steps can include training, adding people, and growing existing and/or building new committees.
Do directors have the functional skills they need to be an effective committee member of the committees in place now, or of the committees expected to be in place soon?
This is a similar question to the first applied specifically to the responsibility of current and future committee work. You’ll need to build a list of what issues you think you might face down the road that are specific to your mission, your programs, and other elements of your work. Expect to find some skill gaps here.
Do directors have the professional, volunteer, and/or life experience that provides a framework for evaluating the circumstances of a financial or legal matter in which the organization finds itself now and/or might find itself soon?
Joining a fiduciary board is a fiduciary (i.e., involving trust) responsibility with accompanying liability. Directors must be able to make financial and legal decisions about the organization they are governing. This is a significant and high level of responsibility that requires perspective and experience.
There must to be a critical mass of capable and experienced decision-makers on the board able to address sensitive and substantive matters that can include employee litigation, property management, CEO contracts and turnover, and more. You must know that you have this human capital resource on the board, and you must have a succession plan for that resource. If you don’t, as soon as you finish reading this article, get started on this.
Do each of the directors have the teamwork and communication skills to address the regular business of the organization and the board, and to attend to the unexpected challenges the organization and executive team might face?
Communication styles and approaches are often easily assessed in conversation and through working relationships. If you need to go a more systematic route, use any number of communication style assessment tools. Given the fiduciary responsibility of boards there is no room for acting out and other intractable behaviors. Everyone has bad days; those are one thing, otherwise, it may be appropriate to either let the term expire or ask the person to bow out.
Are directors willing and able to operate as a true governing board?
Directors need to understand that being an executive and supporting one are not the same thing. Do not bring on or retain a director who is not on board with “nose-in fingers-out” if that is your model.
Are each of the directors able to be effective in their ambassadorship roles? Do they have the life experience, contacts, and/or personal comfort levels for the commitments they have made? Does the organization have the infrastructure to partner with them productively and are all expectations clearly defined and delineated?
Ask all these questions and know the answers. Board members who are reticent about answering these questions are not ready to be ambassadors (yet may be ready to be committee members, so don’t overlook an opportunity to cultivate future ambassadors). Depending on the answers, decide together with your director what their ambassadorship role will be. Clarify with the group what each person is doing.
Regular, proactive check-ins take the pressure off any one person for addressing complicated interpersonal situations. Take full advantage of structures and processes like term limits, job descriptions, and nominating committees when managing a fiduciary board that has real responsibility to an organization, executive team, and community served by the organization it is governing. If you recognize the need to add meat to the bones of your board’s internal management processes, set aside some time and secure resources to do that; you’ll find it is well worth the investment.