A Better Board Primer in Four Steps
Introducing a four-part approach to board development from GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group team. For a deeper dive into process, make sure to click on the article link after each step.
STEP ONE: Find Your Focus
With so many responsibility areas—policy, strategy, funding, ED accountability, and much more—boards need a focus. Determine your focus by asking:
What’s the role? Decide the board’s role based on real-world conditions: organizational maturity, distribution of skills among board and staff, ongoing challenges, etc.
What are the priorities? Priorities assure valuable board resources go to what’s most important. Look at your most pressing needs and the talent on your board.
What specific goals will the board work toward? Without specific targets, apart from ED or organizational goals, the board sinks into a “review and advise” posture—valuable, but unaccountable.
STEP TWO: Structure for Success
To support ongoing strategic needs, your board must establish committees devoted to specific areas by:
Establishing “governance” committees based on the board’s role; these might include Executive, Financial, Program, and Human Resources Committees.
Defining committee leadership roles with help from your board chair, who is responsible for managing board and committee work and monitoring reports from individual committee chairs.
Assigning board members to committees based on interests, skills, and experience, then defining individual member roles and work assignments.
Reviewing board priorities annually and establishing “ad hoc” committees, which form to complete a specific project, then disband once work is done. Like governance committees, they need a chair, well-defined roles, and specific goals.
Scheduling regular board meetings to conduct governance work, at least quarterly but no more than once a month. Regular board meetings should cover board decisions, large-issue discussions, training, and presentations, but not committee work.
STEP THREE: Marshall More Talent
Now you’re in a position to identify talent gaps—the skills, experience, and other qualities your current board lacks. To do that:
Create a matrix of board resources. In a spreadsheet, list all skills, experience, and other qualities necessary to your board’s work. List current board members on the other axis. Check off qualities current members already possess, then recruit for the qualities left unchecked.
Determine the ideal size of the governance board: large enough not to overburden individual members, but not so large that it leaves certain members uninvolved.
Establish a Board Development Committee, responsible for crafting the process by which you identify, screen, and select new members; supporting each recruiter’s efforts; bringing recruits to the board for a vote; and orienting new members.
Orient new board members. Orientation should teach new board members about the organization, the board member role, and the kinds of work they can take on.
Assign new board members to committees according to their interests and capabilities as well as current governance needs.
STEP FOUR: Build Working Relationships
Productive relationships between board and staff leadership begin with a reliable structure and open communication. To establish a baseline of trust and understanding, address issues of structure and process like:
Defining leadership roles for board members and the ED: Create consistent rules of engagement by being clear about authority (“Who makes which decisions?”), responsibility (“Where does each leader spend the most time?”), and relationships (“Who is primary contact for whom?”).
Develop distinct performance expectations for the board and ED: These form the basis for two critical annual processes by which the board and ED evaluate each other: board member assessments and the ED performance review. Agreed upon expectations ensure a fair and meaningful assessment.
Next, you’ll need to create an environment that encourages honest, constructive communication. Three keys:
Honor the “zone of accommodation,” where the roles of board and ED overlap. Structure (clear roles) establishes a starting point, while the “zone” provides space for adaptation and compromise when questions arise.
Encourage “constructive meddling”: Board members gain an intimate understanding of the organization by taking tours, surveying programs, volunteering, and asking questions.
Attend to process issues by actively discussing “hows”: how power is exercised, how people are kept informed, how meetings are conducted. Examining and appreciating interpersonal processes, apart from outcomes, reinforces the strength of the relationships involved.
Working with a diverse group of organizations, GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group team is uniquely positioned to help nonprofit and philanthropic leaders build strong organizations that accelerate growth and social impact through a broad range of projects that help build capacity, navigate change, and maximize impact. Learn more at GCN.org/Nonprofit-Consulting-Group and contact us at [email protected]