Trust and Transition at RRISACindy Cheatham | Georgia Nonprofit NOW, Winter 2014
In the third installment of our Board Chair-CEO conversation series, I dive into the practices of a highly engaged and effective board, the team at GCN member Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA). I had the pleasure of observing them in action while facilitating a recent partnership project, resulting in a plan for RRISA to merge with fellow GCN member Refugee Family Services. Here, RRISA ED Paedia Mixon and Board Chair Judy Clements reveal the importance of trust, honesty, and engagement while undergoing a radical organizational shift like a merger, or a more typical shift, like the transition from a founding board to a working board.
Cindy Cheatham: At a practical level, how would you describe your working relationship as a board chair and CEO, and how do you think about the way you work together on behalf of RRISA?
Board Chair Judy Clements: It’s really defined by a high level of trust on my and the board’s part [regarding] what Paedia does and is able to do. We try not to get in her hair, but we are very interested in the high-level operation of the agency and, as you know, we are a pretty hands-on board. One of our responsibilities is to evaluate how she does, but as a general rule, we trust her, and have a very close relationship, and haven’t had any conflict since she settled into her job—after the first six months or so.
Executive Director Paedia Mixon: Judy and I have breakfast every month, just to make sure we’re checking in. We have a staff member who provides a report of what’s going on to the board every week via email. I think that communication is big, and also that feeling that we are partners, that we are doing this work together. So I’ve never felt an adversarial relationship, because we’re all rooting for the same thing.
“The big learning curve: how to communicate effectively with the board, and how to utilize others members of the staff to make sure that communication is flowing even when I’m very, very busy.”
Cheatham: It’s interesting that you’ve trusted your staff to do a good amount of communications with the board. Have there been any challenges in that process, in the board over-stepping or the staff being confused about how to work with the board?
Mixon: I haven’t seen that happen. I think [everything’s] very well defined. Our Development Director is, obviously, the staff liaison for fundraising and events, and our CFO is the staff liaison for the finance committee. We have a Development Coordinator who handles communication for RRISA, so she’s very good at putting together our concise board report every week.
Clements: The board really appreciates that level of access to the staff, but none of that gets the board involved in programs. And I think that’s important, that we not meddle in, programmatically, what the staff is doing.
Cheatham: What are your thoughts in terms of your roles developing and supporting an effective board?
Clements: That’s harder. A lot of it goes back to who we select to be on the board. Sometimes we’ve made good calls on that, and sometimes we have not. But if we select people who are truly interested, and truly understand their role, and have the time to be involved, then we’ve had some really good [successes]. If they’re people who are overwhelmed, or got on the board for the wrong reasons, just to fill out their resume—who kind of like the mission, but aren’t really committed to it—it’s almost impossible to convert a marginal board member to a really active board member.
Mixon: I think another part is that, once [you recruit] people with that passion, you have to be able to provide them a way to do real work. You have to have something for them to do. In the beginning, that was a challenge, and I think we’ve gotten much better at really taking advantage of the great talent on the board. Judy is actually very good at taking stock, and touching base with people, and making sure they’re committed to the mission. She’s a very pleasant task master in that sense.
Cheatham: What’s an example of meaningful ways board members have engaged in the mission that might not have been as obvious, or intentional?
Mixon: As you know, we are going through a merger, and our board has been very active in working with the board of Refugee Family Services. I’ve seen a lot of board members come alive in the process of figuring out what this new board is going to look like, and how it’s going to work using experience from the past. That’s been a really positive experience, a lot of board members have really stepped up in that process. It seems like once somebody is positively engaged, then they have more ideas and participate in everything in a bigger way.
Cheatham: Did you have, in that merger process, a crisis moment when you asked yourselves, “Are we going to have the bandwidth and energy to really do this thing?
Clements: No, we did not have a situation like that over the merger. I’ll tell you what we have had that situation with though—at least twice—was over putting on a big fundraising event. But the merger was not like that!
Mixon: What we did was submit an application for a Community Foundation grant around partnership, and before we submitted it, we held a meeting with key members from both boards. It was a really late-into-the-night meeting, and we really got everybody’s buy-in before we even submitted the proposal. So I think including the board early, and talking through issues early, really helped.
Cheatham: Have any challenging situations tested your ED-board chair relationship, or put you directly in conflict, and, if so, how did you manage?
Mixon: When I first became director, I was following the founder of the organization. We were very much, as a board and organization, at that place of transition, from a founding board to a working board. Transitioning from one person’s vision to a sustainable organization, that process for me was very rewarding, and I learned a lot, but it was challenging. Our board has changed a lot going through that transition, and we really made it out the other side. Judy as a board chair was a great partner in that process.
“Transitioning from one person’s vision to a sustainable organization, that process for me was very rewarding, and I learned a lot, but it was challenging.”
Cheatham: As a true high performing board, with a good partnership among chair and CEO, what advice would you offer to others to strengthen those important working relationships?
Mixon: [Training] is very important. I think that, like a lot of directors in the same situation as I was, I got a lot of great training after I was already involved. Any chance to go to training on how to work with the board, and to use sources such as BoardSource, have been very helpful. We also went through a very intentional process for recruiting board members, and recruited quite a few at the same time. That was great, to think ahead of time for what we were looking for.
Clements: One of things I would advise is not to keep the executive director and chair relationship exclusive. Give the other board members access to the executive director, encourage them to develop a relationship with her. [They’ll] have more of an emotional stake in its success, and be better prepared to take a leadership role.
Mixon: I also think, especially coming into the position at a time of financial hardships, transparency and disclosure is very important. [Since] the beginning, I really wanted to be held accountable to the board, and in order to have [that, the board needs] to be really well informed. We have a CFO who does a phenomenal job of financial reporting to the board, and has a way of explaining things in a way that are easily understandable. You have to be very honest, and clear, and have good support on your staff.
Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Listen to the podcast, A Conversation with Paedia Mixon and Judy Clements
Cindy Cheatham is a senior affiliate consultant with GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.