Monday, January 16, 2012

Visualizing a 'more ideal' board committee

If many nonprofit board committees waste members' talents and time, and drag their attention away from their governance responsibilities, because they're focusing on the wrong areas, what would an "ideal" work group structure look like?

In last Monday's post, I made a case for rethinking the way we create and use our board committees. We too often assign their work based on staff functions, then complain when they "micromanage." We also wonder why they can't find the energy for the more visionary, future-focused responsibilities that comprise governance. The connection is not a coincidence.

So what would make a more ideal committee? What areas would a more ideal committee structure cover? I have a few "more ideal" thoughts about how I would respond to those questions and acknowledge that you may have your own version of "more ideal" that brings boards and their committees closer to their ultimate responsibilities.

My "more ideal" committee:
  • Would have a charge, goals and activities grounded in the board's governance roles, not staff functions. Energy and outcomes would move the board's leadership work forward.
  • Would take a more detailed approach to fulfilling its work but still remain aspirational in focus - asking and answering big governance questions about the future, capacity, etc.
  • Would ask the question, "what does the board need to know to make the best decision possible on this," and take charge of ensuring that its learning needs are addressed.
  • Would not just report on committee findings and activities but would facilitate board-level discussions that engage members in broad group exploration of the issue at hand.
  • Would submit committee reports - especially regarding activities that have already passed - in writing, opening board meeting time for meaningful discussion (and contributing to the board's organizational history).
  • Would include staff and volunteer participation where appropriate, to foster information sharing, wider ownership of outcomes, and feeding the board's pool of prospective new members.
  • May not be a "committee," but a task force called together for a specific purpose and disbanded when the work is completed.

In the last post, I posed a few alternative focus areas for board committees. In the rest of this post, I will reintroduce those committees and suggest how they might be used to accomplish your board's work. You may have different needs and different ways of conceiving your ultimate governance responsibilities, but I offer these as an example of how we might create a different structure for doing our boards' work. Your board may have a different ways of conceptualizing your roles and the structure to fulfill them.

Community Outreach Committee

This committee would be charged with nurturing the board's/organization's relationships in the community, laying the groundwork by asking: What kinds of relationships? With whom? Why? How? It would be charged with ensuring that board members are establishing and building mutually beneficial relationships with key stakeholder groups. In some cases, board members would take the lead in making connections to stakeholders. In other cases, members would add board-level credibility and support to relationships that senior staff are building with community members and groups. Whatever the specific setting, emphasis is on the unique boundary-spanning credibility that the board brings.  The committee also must focus on ensuring that every member serving in a community ambassador role has the support and resources needed to succeed.

This committee would play a lead role in the leadership team defining and communicating a larger strategy for community outreach. It would not delve into specific public relations or marketing tasks (staff's domain, if staff exist). Rather, it would encourage members would bring in what they are hearing and seeing in their boundary spanning work and identify with the CEO the issues and opportunities to address within the context of their mission. It also would lead the board in developing any policies related to this work.

Resource Development Committee

Interpreted broadly, this group's task could be daunting. On the other hand, having one committee charged with taking a holistic approach to understanding and sustaining all of the agency's resources is healthy and conducive to more productive and effective decision making. In my "more ideal" conceptualization, this committee's charge would include funding: expanding diversity of sources, building stability - and, yes, fundraising - as part of that mix (not necessarily personally implementing the fundraising process, but ensuring that appropriate goals are set and processes adopted that lead to their achievement). Committee members also would have responsibility for board-level involvement in human resource development, primarily focused on policy development but attuned to helping senior staff ensure that paid and volunteer staff have the resources needed to succeed. I also would place policies and issues related to capital resources (buildings, investments, etc.) under this umbrella.

Yes, I realize that particular description might terrify many board members. The point is that the board benefits from a system-wide understanding of a nonprofit's resources, rather than having different member subsets working on various, isolated parts.

Accountability/Transparency Committee

I acknowledge the inherent overlap between the focus of this committee and the one just described. But I offer it as a separate entity, to not only avoid killing Resource Development Committee members, but to create a natural mechanism for the board as a whole understanding and embracing their accountability responsibilities. I see this committee as guaranteeing that the organization fulfills all reporting requirements instituted governmental (e.g., IRS and grantor agencies) and donor sources. But beyond that bottom line role, this committee would take the lead on facilitating board-level conversations about appropriate internal and external transparency and accountability to all stakeholders. It would raise awareness about a critical role that too often is ignored or confined to asking, "Is our 990 up to date?"

Board Development/Governance Committee

The previous three committees spend a significant percentage of their time tending to external sustainability issues. This one turns inward, addressing the capacity needs of the board itself.  An investment in the board's learning and recruitment needs yields results in increased member capacity to lead and serve. Among the responsibilities that would fall under this committee's charge would be: identifying and addressing the board's learning needs, planning and implementing individual member and board self-assessments throughout the year, taking the lead for the board's new member recruitment process, and serving as the board's nominating committee. The point of this committee is the board's ownership of its own learning and leadership development needs. It also holds leadership responsibility for cultivating and recruiting the new members who will help the board meet its own capacity needs.

The topics I've selected and the charges I've given each committee may feel exactly right to you, or you may have your own thoughts about focus areas for your governing body. The point is that your board will rise to the aspirations members set for themselves. Are you asking your board - and its committees - to lead as only the board can? Are you giving them work that links them directly with the reason they signed on in the first place?

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