Board governance is not for the faint of heart

I just have to say, first of all, that I LOVE the Blue Avocado and You’ve Cott Mail emails.  They are always insightful, useful, and get my brain jumpstarted in the morning.  If you don’t already receive them, click the links and get started.

It was an article asking “Who is Responsible for the Board Doing a Good Job?” in Blue Avocado this morning that inspired this post.  I have to admit, I have been guilty of thinking, “what is this board doing, why can’t they do their job?!?”  But, I have come to agree with author Jan Masaoka that if the board isn’t working, you need look no further than the executive leadership of the company (I’m going to use “executive leadership” as my term of choice because I think it is the responsibility of all executive-level leaders to do this work, whether they bear the title of Executive Director, Artistic Director, Managing Director, or any other).  Yes, it is our fault and we can (and need to) do something about it.  If we are going to reap the benefits of the virtuous circle that strong boards and strong exective leadership creates, we have to get serious about what we are doing to make it a reality.  One executive director is quoted in the article as asking herself every day at noon, “What have I done today to strengthen the board’s ability to lead?”  This is a great place to start.

So, what can we do to help our boards lead?  Here are just a handful of ideas.  Please add your own in the comments!

  1. Make sure everyone on the board has a project.  Not everyone is cut out for the in-person asks for large checks and this isn’t the only reason you have a board. As an executive leader it is our responsibility to know what the strengths of our board members are and how those strengths would be best utilized in support of our mission.  You should know this before you bring someone on the board, but you also need to do regular check-ins to make sure that you are still on target with their interests and strengths.  I believe that someone should check in with each member of the board every six months.  Once a year by the executive staff leadership and once by the board chair.  The baseline for performing arts boards is to attend performances and bring friends, but it is our job to help them think beyond the basics.  If, after a thorough check in you still don’t know how to utilize a board member, it is time for them to roll off the board an make room for someone who can and will contribute.
  2. Give the board the tools they need.  Perhaps a board member is interested in doing person-to-person fundraising but doesn’t feel they have the skills to do it well.  Set up a Fundraising 101 session at the annual retreat (preferrably lead by a board member who is good at it, but a great development director can do it, too) so that everyone can practice and realize that each ask is the end of a careful cultivation process, not a cold request for a check.  Also, connect your board members with classes, articles and information from the Foundation Center, local nonprofit support organizations (like Georgia Center for Nonprofits), BoardSource, and, of course, Blue Avocado.  The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta works with GCN to provide classes specifically to increase nonprofit effectiveness.
  3. Create a mentor system for new board members.  When you bring in a new class of board members (you are bringing them in in groups of two or more, right??), set the newbies up with a buddy who is confident about his/her contribution to the board and can help keep them focused on productive activities.  It is so easy to get someone excited to be with you and support your mission and then have that excitement slowly peeter out through lack of focus and the pull of their daily lives.  The more motivated folks you get working to help the new members, the stronger the connection will be (and the less amount of time any one person will have to spend in the support role).
  4. Make committee meetings active.  Nothing kills the desire to participate like going to meetings and listening to the staff drone on about reports.  Each member of the committee should have something that they are working on and will need to give a short status update about at the meeting.  The committee chair should be checking in with the members between meetings to make sure they have the tools that they need and are on track to give their reports.  It doesn’t help the member feel successful to just wait until the meeting and say, “What have you been doing all this time??”  And, yes, it is the responsibility of the executive leadership to make sure the committee chairs are on track!  When was the last time you spoke to your nominating chair about their governance of the committee and any needs they might have?

It isn’t hard work to keep your board active, but it does take a committment to make it part of your daily job description.  We are in a symbiotic relationship with the board and it is our responsibility to make sure we all get fed.

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