Sunday, June 17, 2012

10 ways to respect nonprofit boards

This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.

We know - in theory, at least - that nonprofits can't live without their boards.

We know about the bottom line: to qualify for nonprofit status, we must have a board. We know that our boards assume ultimate legal accountability for our organizations. We know that they are the lead stewards of our vision and mission. We recognize that board members are volunteers, committing time and expertise, to our cause.

But do we act as if we know all of this? Do we show our boards that we respect both them and the responsibility that they accept on our behalf? Showing respect for our volunteer leaders involves more than mere words. Here are 10 ways to demonstrate our respect for both the institution of nonprofit governance and the individuals who provide it.

1. Adopt a definition of board work that values equally the three modes of the Governance as Leadership model - fiduciary, strategic and generative. Respect all three sets of responsibilities as essential to the board's role. Recognize that strategic thinking and governing are more than special events, and that generating creative answers to big questions are what boards are meant to do.

2. Recruit members who are prepared for, and interested in, governing in all three modes. Set expectations high. Spell them out in the recruitment process, before community leaders agree to serve, so that they can commit freely and fully. Hold all members to those expectations throughout their terms of service. Boards will rise to the level of accountability that is set for and by them.

3. Help members identify what they require to succeed - and do your best to meet those needs. What must they know about your mission area? About your organization and your services you provide? What aspects of governance do they need to understand better? How can the board improve its effectiveness as a working group? Don't assume you know the answers to these questions. Respect them enough to ask.

4. Make exploration and discovery a board responsibility. Foster an environment where it is okay for members to admit don't know something. Not only does this encourage board ownership of its learning, it also reduces the risk of one of the most troublesome board issues: making bad or inadequate decisions because we were too proud to admit we didn't understand.

5. Make asking future-focused questions the centerpiece of their work.  Give the board time to pose, reflect on, and discuss big questions - about opportunities and issues - that matter.  This is why most of us sign up in the first place: to make a difference in our community and to make the world a better place. Envisioning and creating capacity for a better future is the board's ultimate responsibility.

6. Don't waste their time. Do whatever you can to rid their agendas of reports focused on events past and management minutiae. Start meetings on time, and don't let them wander unproductively on topics that do not specifically address governance roles. Respect members' significant gift of time.

7. Value - and use - the gifts they bring to the table. Recognize their expertise and draw upon it to build the board's capacity to govern. Engage individual members in work that regularly draws upon their skills/knowledge and encourages them to assume situational leadership of board work in those areas.

8. Find meaningful ways to recognize member efforts. Don't assume you know how members like to be recognized. Ask. Don't wait until an annual banquet or formal event to acknowledge their contributions. Thank them in a timely manner - as projects are completed, as milestones are reached, as calls to stakeholders are made, as group leadership is demonstrated. Thank them sincerely. Thank them appropriately. Thank them in ways that are personally meaningful.

9. Share the board's work and contributions with staff and volunteers. Because there can a fine line between attentiveness and micromanagement, boards and senior staff often go to great lengths to maintain distance between the governing body and the front line. Along the way, what often happens is a vast misunderstanding about what the board does - and resentment about what appear to be arbitrary actions flowing from a mysterious group of outsiders. Educate your staff and volunteers about the board's leadership roles and governance responsibilities. Look for ways to provide context for board actions, especially those that impact daily staff and volunteer life. Welcome appropriate ways for board and staff to interact and understand each other better. Which brings me to...

10. Don't badmouth your board to others. Ever. They may occasionally challenge your sanity and your ability to accomplish your own work. But you must never air those frustrations to other audiences inside or outside of the agency. First, failure to live up to expectations seldom is solely the board's fault (see the other points of this list as a starting point). Second, you risk undermining the board's legitimate governance responsibilities and poisoning that ownership in their interactions with others. If the board isn't living up to expectations, ask why and work with them to change the environment. Don't criticize them behind their backs and wonder why staff resent policy decisions and why the board's credibility with external stakeholders is less than solid.

I certainly understand that our boards not only face challenges - they create them. We fall short of commitments. We lose steam, especially when the work gets hard or tedious. But our nonprofits do their boards a disservice by assuming the worst and by not supporting their role and their work as organizational and community leaders. They deserve our respect.


Jane Garthson said...

Not only is this a great list, but point 10 is what my next ethics column is about - it's not always easy! Nothing is easy about boards, if you follow Debra's list, they are so worthwhile.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Your feedback, and your affirmation of the importance of point 10, are valued, Jane. I appreciate your input and your wisdom.