Board member clarity about why they were being asked to served - before an invitation was made or accepted - provided a crucial foundation for that service.
In individual interviews with members of my case study board, one noteworthy "practice" theme emerged: clarity about the role(s) they would play as individual members. Some of that clarity could be tied to specific expertise (especially professional expertise) that they would bring to the table. For example:
I know how the profession operates and have a pretty good feel as to how other (professionals) in town think and operate from being here for 30 years. I see, from a greater standpoint, what the bigger picture is.
Being a business owner, I understand the whole financial aspect of running a business. When we have the discussions of money in and money out, where to put the money, how to save it, and what to spend – that all makes sense to me… Creatively -- when it comes to promotions, public relations – that’s all stuff that’s up my alley that I’m comfortable with. That’s where my focus lies.
Sometimes I think, or I hope, I can give insight as to what someone’s process might be with regard to their behavior or how we might do better with setting limits or having certain policies to either deal with or avoid certain situations.
Sometimes, that role/contribution could be described as coming from within, a quality that likely was invisible to board members during the recruitment phase but that the individual acknowledged as something of potential value to the governance or group process.
For example, Thomas (pseudonym) described one of his more important roles as bringing a “kind of decisive, critical attitude” to discussions.
Elizabeth (pseudonym) recognized her role in focusing the board on mission during a potentially challenging decision that it faced.
I think critically. I think sometimes ... I hope that I can ferret out what the real issues are and help with the critical thinking process. If we have decisions to make, I hope that I help.
Feedback from other members confirmed that Elizabeth’s efforts in that area were a significant gift to discussions. Her name also arose during at least one individual interview as someone who contributed in this specific way.
From a practice standpoint, we hope that new members launch their service knowing up front what is expected of them. In some ways, being able to articulate a purpose tied to professional roles or expertise (especially in mission areas), should be so mundane and expected that reporting need not have been necessary.
In practice, that may be an assumption that is not universally accurate. Certainly, most attorneys and finance professionals probably know what kinds of knowledge contributions they will be expected to make, whether or not someone explicitly states it. And if you have fundraising experience, it's not a great leap to assume you will be called upon to at least advise on your organization's programs in that area. Similarly, if you have ties to one or more valued stakeholder groups, you can reasonably expect to help facilitate connections.
But there still are too many "any live body will do" and "friend of a friend/someone I know" approaches to filling too many board seats. From that perspective, the fact that every, single member could articulate some specific reason why he or she was recruited to serve felt noteworthy by itself. It is especially noteworthy when paired with their individual articulations of specific connections between their interests/motivations/values and the nonprofit's mission. (Studying this board's recruitment and orientation processes was one of my fantasy follow-ups.)
More to the point of the larger study of board learning, watching how members stepped up when needed to inform the group's thinking about a topic or responsibility, deepened my appreciation for the processes that produced role clarity. They knew what they could contribute - add value - to the board's larger work, and they demonstrated multiple examples of doing just that in the months that I sent with them.