NOTE: For longtime readers, this post likely will appear to be a major rehash of virtually everything posted here in the last five years. For me, it is an attempt to synthesize all that I believe - and know - to be true about effective nonprofit governance. Whether it ultimately launches my own model of nonprofit governance or simply helps to articulate my bottom line for boards, I hope that others will find it useful.
After nearly 30 years working on and with boards, and five years of blogging about nonprofit governance, I’ve definitely developed my own sense of what is takes to truly lead in the boardroom.
I’m constantly reflecting and writing about the details of that topic. But if someone asked me to sum up everything I believe about boards, could I do that? The answer would be yes, and it would take only four words. The effective, productive nonprofit board is:
The high-impact nonprofit board is Inclusive. Members bring a range of perspectives to the table: personal and professional connections, life experiences, knowledge and expertise, and ways of seeing the world. The board recruits with diversity in mind – including, but not limited to, demographic diversity – and creates an environment where exploring issues and opportunities through different lenses is not only welcome, it’s expected.
The high-impact nonprofit board is Engaging. Meetings are places where governance takes place – where open discussions about the future are not reserved for special events but the core work of the board. Members want to participate and be part of the process, because they know that the work they do is meaningful and ultimately advances the purpose of the organization. Deliberations matter, because they focus on understanding, debating, articulating and ultimately making the best decision possible for the organization and the community. They also are the centerpiece of meetings, not endless oral reports about events past.
The high-impact nonprofit board is Accountable. The board understands that accountability requires more than monitoring the financial statement. It is an attitude of stewardship and responsibility to all stakeholders – those served, staff and volunteers, donors, policymakers, and the community as a whole. Members take their stewardship role seriously. They work to ensure that all resources are used wisely and appropriately. The board values evaluation – including self-assessment – that is grounded in the ultimate question, “How did we advance the mission and vision?”
The high-impact nonprofit board is Generative. Members understand the value of big, sweeping questions –grounded in organizational mission – that move the community closer to its vision of an ideal future. They embrace uncertainty, knowing that is where the greatest potential lies, in that undefined space of unlimited opportunity for both the organization and its community. It embraces the critical board role of boundary-spanning – where members reach out, and draw in, from their personal and professional networks. They not only speak up on behalf of the organization, they also listen, query others, and bring back what they learn to the board. High-impact, generative boards also recognize that learning takes place informally – in the everyday actions and interactions - as well as formally. They seek out, and grow from, the chance to learn from resources inside and outside of the organization. They also take time to stop and reflect.