Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Squandered board seats

“(E)very person at the table is so important. Not one seat can be squandered with someone who is not really present and engaged, either bringing expertise or perspective.”

My Twitter friend, Alice Korngold, was discussing the nonprofit board’s role in ensuring financial sustainability when she made that statement (in this 2009 Carnegie Council podcast). But I trust that, like me, she would apply the idea to governance in general.

I’ve served on my share of boards where inactive members were accepted because of the prestige or access they (supposedly) provided to the organization. I’ve been frustrated serving alongside other board members who, for different reasons, treated board service as an apparently casual commitment. And, yes, I once struggled to stay engaged myself, in a setting where agendas perpetually strayed from mission-focused tasks.

Believe me, I know the importance of not wasting board seats on people who are not present and actively engaged in the critical work of governance.

A range of factors can inhibit board member engagement in governance. Some are found within the individual and generally outside of our control. But a vast number of possibilities exist within the organization itself. Those we can address.

As I listened again to the podcast this week, several of those potentially avoidable scenarios immediately came to mind. My list is far from comprehensive (and will sound familiar in several places to regular readers), but I’d like to share some of the factors I consider to be most critical. I hope that you will share your own insights with me and with fellow readers.

Fostering Engaged Board Members

Place mission first in recruitment. Recruitment of potential board members begins with commitment to the nonprofit’s mission. If the prospect is not committed to – preferably passionate about – your mission, the process ends there.

Place mission first in governance work. Board members engage when they can see that the work they are doing is moving you closer to mission fulfillment. Two different needs exist here: to help them make those connections, particularly with the more routine responsibilities, and most important, building board meeting agendas around mission-critical work. (My personal engagement struggle was completely tied to failed attempts to push us toward the latter.)

Create absolute clarity about commitments made. Communicate clearly, in the recruitment process, exactly what you expect of board members. Confirm in the invitation and orientation processes that the prospect is prepared to live up to those responsibilities (and never, ever try to squeeze a yes out of someone by promising, “It really doesn’t take THAT much time…”).

Engage members’ expertise. If you have successfully vetted prospective members and recruited for board needs, you already know what each individual is prepared to bring to the table in service to your organization. Confirm his/her willingness to contribute specific gifts of expertise, then regularly engage that wisdom in board discussions, deliberations and responsibilities. Engage them as peer learning leaders, expanding the group’s collective knowledge and capacity to govern.

Ask the big questions, regularly. If you fill your board agenda with reports and trivia, you are wasting their time. Regularly pose mission-critical questions to board members, especially those connecting their governance and community outreach responsibilities.

Encourage storytelling. Particularly powerful are those illustrating community impact. Stories that connect individual or collective board action to that impact carry additional power to engage.

Encourage boundary spanning – and hold them accountable for it. One of the truly unique contributions that board members can make is building support for your organization within their peer groups and circles of influence. Give members the tools – and the responsibility – for reaching out on your behalf and bringing others to you in authentic ways. Expect them to share how they accomplished that, so that they can learn from each other’s example.

Commit to regular board development. Board members need and benefit from regular opportunities to learn about your organization and about their governance responsibilities. Think beyond full-blown “training” events. Look for ways to integrate learning into their meetings and work. Also look for ways to involve them in that learning. If the knowledge doesn’t already exist in the boardroom, encourage one or more members to explore the issue and share what they learn with their peers.

Expect, and learn from, self-assessment. Board members benefit from the opportunity to assess their effectiveness as individuals and as a group. They benefit more when they have the chance to discuss their strengths and their challenges with each other, and when they are able to take steps to increase collective capacity by addressing the latter. Part of that process should include asking, “What matters to you, and how are we helping you to fulfill that?”

I could go on forever, and write a post (or five) on each one. Instead, I’ll click “publish” and look forward to reading your feedback and experiences. How do we reduce the risk of “squandered” board seats by engaging members in ways that move us closer to mission?


Alexandra Lally Peters said...

Terrific post, Debra - agree with every point you made. And yet boards seats are regularly squandered, especially on the somewhat unknown person (or sometimes even a known person) who is invited on in the hope that they'll give big bucks, or use their connections to important people, or even because they have a recognizable name that will somehow bring prestige to the organization. Sigh. It so rarely works. It's magic thinking.

Boards are teams who must sometimes function under pressure, often with profound consequences to the organization on whose board they serve. Choosing the players on these teams is critically important. It's not about magic, it's about figuring out who would be an asset to the team. You nailed it.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Oh, absolutely, Alexandra. That first item on the list, recruiting for mission, sets the stage for everything else. Having the right people on the bus (nod to Jim Collins) cannot be understated.

Once we have those right people, it's up to us to make the most effective use of their time (and help address their legitimate needs for meaning in service. Both ends of the process are critical.

Appreciate your wisdom on this, as always!

Amy Eisenstein said...

Debra - wonderful article!

It's always amazing to me when ED's tell me that their board isn't helping with fundraising, and yet they are guilty of so many of the things you discuss.

Another frequent issue of nonprofit boards is that they are too small (less than 15 people, in my opinion) and don't have any functioning committees. Goes right along with your theme of squandered board seats.

Debra said...

Oh, goodness. Yes, Amy! Your first observation reminds me of an event I co-facilitated last year. The topic was board development. The audience, a room full of EDs and senior staff. No matter what was proposed, the standard response was along the lines of "Oh, no. We can't possibly expect that. They'll never..." Etc., etc., etc. How do they know: Have they asked? Have they tried and failed? Have board members openly refused to fulfill their governance responsibilities (and, if so, why are they on your boards?!?!?).

Bottom line: we set a low bar for board members, and get what we expect (and don't support).

Boards need - and thrive on - meaningful work. Most of us want to make a difference. We're there because we do. We benefit from rising to high expectations (and clarity about what those expectations are). We need opportunities to see how we're engaged in work that is making a difference. We also need support from the organization to succeed.