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Transforming Board Performance

Do your board members get along? Maybe a better question is, “Do your board members work well as a team?”. Nonprofit organizations pass through life cycles (not unlike for-profit organizations) as they evolve. Their existence starts as an idea, progresses to a start-up, experiences growth, becomes mature, then either continues to adapt and evolve within the sustainability stage or becomes stagnate, declines (possibly regenerates and continues) and goes out of business.

I work with diverse nonprofit clients on a variety of board governance issues, but many of them share a common concern. They describe it from one extreme where the board does not get along, to the other extreme where the board is not capable of making decisions, to a myriad of issues in between like not having a quorum to take action and members not following through on their commitments. These may seem unrelated, but the result of the issue is the same, an ineffective team with many causes at the root.

If your board members do not view themselves as a team and the board chair does not cultivate them with an understanding they are a team comprised of individual experts, then the organization is destined for dysfunction. I can explain this dynamic through a myriad of analogies including using a sports team, an office team, or a project team. As I sat in the dining area of my hotel across from a women’s collegiate softball team a few months ago, I was inspired to use the sports team. On a sports team you have the coach and the players (along with a key supporting cast of assistants and trainers). Each player is selected for the unique value she brings to the team. After joining the team, the coach works individually with the athlete as well as collectively with the team. The coach must ensure the athlete understands her role on the team and the rules of the game. He spends time getting to know the athlete personally, he provides direction and guidance, answers questions, mandates attendance at practices, employs help from other experts like assistant coaches and athletic trainers, arranges social gatherings for the team to build bonds, holds the athletes accountable for their performance, celebrates individual and team victories, discusses challenges and shortcomings directly and immediately, and maintains respect for who each athlete is, and what she brings to the table (after all, he intentionally selected her for the team).

Board members hold a fiduciary, legal responsibility for the affairs of a nonprofit organization. Representing your college as an athlete does not carry the same fiduciary and legal responsibilities as a nonprofit board member, but it similarly carries tremendous responsibility in terms of reputation, image, recruiting, and yes, garnering donations. Board members assume these same responsibilities regarding their nonprofit organization. With so much at stake, why is the recognized dysfunction allowed to perpetuate? Nonprofit board chairs, in concert with their leadership team of officers and committee chairs have a responsibility and an obligation to identify what is at the root of the board dysfunction and address it head on.

Perhaps board members do not understand their role and the responsibilities they accept when they join a board of directors. If not, the board should charter a governance (or board development) committee and/or engage a subject matter expert to train the board in these areas. The training can be a full day retreat or offered over several months as a series, broken into smaller, digestible chunks of 20-minute segments on the board meeting agenda. Perhaps enough detailed information was not shared with board candidates during the recruitment process. If not, examine the board recruitment process (if one exists, and if not, create one) to ensure candidates understand what is expected upon joining the board. Thoroughly orient new members upon joining the board then continue providing training throughout their board service term. Perhaps the issue is that members do not know each other on a personal level and therefore do not care, respect, or appreciate each other’s value.

Board members should have several opportunities to interact socially with one another, whether it is before the board meeting begins, after it ends, at gala events, during a board retreat or more importantly, at specifically arranged social gatherings exclusively for the board (such as a reception in someone’s home or attendance at an arts or sporting event). One simple suggestion that is easy to implement quickly is to open or end every board meeting with each member sharing one good thing or area of personal concern from their life. Taking actions like these let the board members engage with one another in ways that develop their rapport and respect for each other which in turn helps them to hold each other accountable. These things will likely keep them from unconsciously abdicating their responsibilities and creating dysfunction.

Good teams do not just happen, they are intentionally developed. The individual members must be tended to as well as the whole team. Nonprofit organizations need to recognize the varying dynamics of their board, which is typically comprised of individuals who span the gamut of high achieving leaders who are used to commanding the room and telling others what to do, to community activists fighting for justice and for their voices to be heard, to developing leaders who have never served on a nonprofit board of directors but want to make a difference. Nonprofit organizations must learn to develop their individual board members as well as their team so that diverse boards comprised of different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and skills, can lead as a high-performing board with a strong board-staff partnership. Only then can they effectively deliberate and emerge from the boardroom as “one board, one voice” where the community wins!

copyright 2020 501c Impact!

Glenda Y. Hicks is a nonprofit consultant and trainer equipping organizations so the community wins!

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