Building a Stronger Board

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A client of mine has been preparing for a campaign for the past 12 months.  Together, we have been working to get the organization “campaign ready” by ensuring they are following best practices and addressing identified shortcomings.  One of our priorities during this time has been making sure that the Board of Directors is at full capacity, and that it is compromised of the right individuals.  What does this mean, exactly?

Often times when my colleagues and I speak with Board members from various organizations, they tell us that they enjoy being advisors and providing guidance to the Executive Director and other key leaders.  While this role can be beneficial at times, it is imperative for individuals to have a clear understanding of their comprehensive role as a Board member.  Every nonprofit should strive to have a Board comprised of individuals who have the traits highlighted below.  Prior to inviting a prospective Board member to join the Board, the Executive Director and Board Chair should make clear these expectations and confirm the prospective member is a good match.

A willingness to invest in the organization

Some organizations have a “give/get” expectation for all Board members.  This could be a specific dollar amount (i.e.: $10,000 give/get) or a sentiment (i.e.: make the organization your “charity of choice” during your Board tenure).  While my personal preference is a specific dollar amount, I also recognize that this may be prohibitive for some organizations and individuals.  One sentiment that rings true for me is “equal sacrifices, not equal gifts”.  Communicating and following this guideline ensures that all Board members are giving what they can to further the mission of the organization.

In addition to supporting the organization financially, Board members must be willing to give of their time.  Attending Board and committee meetings (ideally, in person) must be a priority.  It is also imperative to show up for events and invite guests as appropriate.  Finally, each Board member offers a unique perspective and skillset.  Share these talents by participating in the conversation and offering to assist in ways that benefit the organization.

A passion for the mission

The mission of the organization should be meaningful to each Board member.  It may be difficult to garner enthusiasm – and even more difficult to share that enthusiasm with others – if the work of the organization does not excite the individual.  Over the years, I have been declined a number of invitations  to serve on Boards – not because I didn’t believe they were doing good work, but because I couldn’t get excited about dedicating my time and resources.  Be discerning; it should be a good match for both the individual and the organization.

A strong understanding of what is – and is not – the Board’s area of responsibility

Simply put, the Board’s responsibility is to provide financial support, fiduciary oversight and to hire, evaluate – and if necessary, fire – the Executive Director.  That’s it.  And while that may sound simple, it often gets complicated.  For example, if the Board makes the decision to fire the Executive Director, they may choose to appoint a Board member to step in and serve as an Interim Executive Director.  While it sounds like a simple solution, the Board then becomes more involved in the day-to-day operations and may have a hard time stepping back once a new Executive Director is in place.   Keeping these key responsibilities (financial, fiduciary, ED oversight) “front and center” should provide a clear guide for the Board.

It is also beneficial if the Board has a good sense of governance.  Board meetings should follow a formal protocol, such as Robert’s Rules of Order, to ensure that there is a quorum and that there is time to effectively address issues, answer questions and ensure healthy dialogue.

An openness to different points of view

Finally, Board members should be willing to hear a variety of viewpoints before making a decision.  This openness will ensure that the organization benefits from a diversity of thinking and will help make the organization stronger.

by: Susan Bottum Matejka, Vice President, HUB Philanthropic Solutions

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