Monday, March 21, 2011

Board roles: More than the bottom line

If you’ve served on a nonprofit board, you’ve probably seen – or at least heard of – the “10 Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards.”  If you’ve read this blog for more than a month or two, you probably also know that I’m not the biggest fan of that list.

It’s not that the tasks it covers aren’t important governance roles. Rather, when I read that list, I see very little that actually excites and motivates board members to serve. I also see some gaps that trouble me. A few years ago, I added four roles that I believe address both issues. I talk about them at the end of this video overview of board member responsibilities, but I realized recently that I have never written about them, here or elsewhere. 

It’s not that the big 10 don’t cover aspects of a couple of my added roles. But they miss articulating the broader responsibilities that exist in governance - the roles that make nonprofit governance a meaningful leadership opportunity.

My expanded roles list includes not only the BoardSource 10 but also these four:
  • Steward
  • Leader
  • Ambassador
  • Visionary
Steward – The steward ensures the appropriate use of all agency resources. He/she understands and embraces the board’s accountability to all stakeholders, not just the bottom-line reporting required of the IRS, funders and others that expect things to be counted. Accountability to me also means holding sacred the need for thoughtfulness in all deliberations – not taking them lightly, researching carefully, and making the best decisions possible with the broadest knowledge base available.

Leader – The board’s leadership role begins, and ultimately ends, with defining and advancing the nonprofit’s vision and mission.  They must be willing to ask the tough questions, inside and outside of the organization, to identify and address the opportunities to move the mission forward and the key challenges to doing so.  In this role, the board moves forward with confidence on the work that they take on in meetings and in the priorities to which they attend. They embrace their ultimate leadership role and all that involves, not serving as a rubber stamp for the executive director but recognizing the board’s partnership with the CEO as the organization’s leadership team.

Ambassador – Board members’ status as community leaders, and their willingness to reach out to peer and stakeholder groups on behalf of the organization, are unique contributions that should not only be valued but expected of board members. (For a fantastic overview of this aspect of board service, read Paul Vandeventer’s Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Increasing Civic Reach.”) Board members have a special responsibility to speak up – and out – on issues impacting the organization and its mission. While others have similar opportunities and should be encouraged to do the same, board members as community leaders have a different kind of credibility with many stakeholder groups. Not encouraging and supporting them in fulfilling this role is a major mistake.

Visionary - This may be the most important – and least enacted – board role: creating, articulating and advancing the organization’s vision of a better community/world. This means regularly spending quality time envisioning what that better community/world looks like, toward what ends, and integrating that into governance work. Boards should be perpetually looking toward – and beyond – the horizon, even as they attend to work firmly grounded in the realities of today. Without this visionary role, the board will be forever stuck in the day-to-day, where nothing changes and never gets better. Tending to this role enables and empowers the board to stay focused on the unique – and usually non-urgent – responsibilities of governance. It’s both too easy and too costly to ignore.

I welcome your reaction to my additions. Do they truly add anything of value to how we define governance?


Alexandra Peters said...

I'd add questioning to this excellent list. It really is the board's job to ask, to question, to find out what's going on. Trust, but verify. Because the Board has a disinterested role (although we hope they're not uninterested) they should be able to step back and ask, "Why?", "How?", "Can we afford it?", "What would that make possible?" , "How does that bring us closer to our vision?" and a whole slew of other questions. That definitely includes the one that can be hardest to ask, "Can you explain that? I don't understand it." 

I think very often boards don't foster a culture of inquiry because they don't know each other very well, so they don't know how much everyone else knows and don't want to appear ignorant. They are often in awe of the wisdom of the ED and wouldn't want to appear to be second guessing him or her. Many don't understand how to monitor the voluminous materials some boards receive, and others have no idea what's going on because their boards supply very little information. It's hard to say, "I don't know what's going on here." 

So, having well thought out materials that arrive quickly and focus on the critical issues: trends, changes, insolvency, cash flow, budget shortfalls, etc., would make it easier for board members to look at materials and start asking questions. And frank discussion at board meetings about the importance of questions would help open up more inquiry. I personally think an agenda which is all questions is infinitely more powerful than one where someone is giving all the answers. Reframing agendas as questions would enliven discussion and make clear to every one that this is the board's job. And it's a really important one.     

Debra said...

Excellent point, Alexandra. The capacity to pose strategic questions absolutely drive the steward role and, to a large extent, the visionary. But you know I share your appreciation for the value of inquiry, of the well-placed, well-timed question across governance.

Boards need to do their homework. They need to understand deeply their mission - both within their "local" context and more broadly. They need to do that research, understand the issues, explore the challenges and opportunities. None of that happens by sitting back and expecting the ED to tell us what we need to know.

*Loved* your conception of an all-question agenda! The environment that has the potential to foster is transformative.