Monday, August 30, 2010

Five Tools for Better Boards

Whether you are an Executive Director struggling with a combative Board of Directors, or a Board member secretly wondering why you made the commitment to monthly meetings that often waste your time, working effectively with a nonprofit board can be challenging.

When so many people know what a good board should look like, why are there still so many boards that are contentious and unproductive? Here are some reasons:
  • Board members are volunteers with jobs and lives that take precedence over their nonprofit commitments.
  • Dysfunction is frequently the norm when groups of people get together.
  • On any given board, you are likely to have one person who is a flake, one person having a personal crisis, and one person convinced he/she is always right.
  • Most board members haven't a clue about their actual legal and fiscal responsibilities.
  • Despite all the written materials, there really is no one model for board structure and procedures - because every board is different.
Nonetheless, here are five tools that can help you oil the waters and facilitate a dynamic, creative, and cooperative working environment for your nonprofit board:
  1. Focused recruitment: Expand your search beyond the standard categories of lawyer, banker, donor - consider geography, age, family circumstances, community connections, special skills, ability to work with others. Be absolutely honest about what the job entails when you talk to potential recruits.
  2. Thorough orientation: Put together a complete orientation package that includes a detailed job description, fiscal and program information, annual calendar, policy manual, by-laws, and personnel policies. Meet individually with each new board member to review the materials, find out particular interests, and answer questions. Make sure every board member actually understands the organization's fiscal reports.
  3. Creative culture: Aim for less reporting and more problem-solving. Tackle big issues first, before the minutiae. Evaluate your board agenda; change it if it's not working. Provide snacks and refreshments. Allow some time for fun - nothing improves a meeting more than a good laugh.
  4. Clearly articulated procedures: Create a set of guidelines for board conduct that emphasizes civil discourse and consensus (and leave Robert's Rules of Order behind). Review and update your policy manual annually. Never schedule a meeting you don't really need. Always summarize, make work assignments, and designate the person who will nag everyone about deadlines before the meeting concludes.
  5. Regular renewal: Once a year, read the organization's mission out loud and re-affirm your commitment to that mission; do the same for the board job description. Conduct an annual assessment of board strengths and weaknesses; create a work plan to follow up. Do an annual review of basic board roles and responsibilities.
Above all, stay open to change. Every board is different, and every year in the organizational life cycle is different. Budgets get bigger, staff turns over, the dynamics of the group shifts, client demographics change, and the balance of power between board and staff fluctuates. Be willing to see the change and make the adjustments that will further sustain your organization in accomplishing its mission.

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