Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Unique board contributions, specific qualifications


"What is one thing that this board contributes that others cannot do? What are our specific qualifications to provide it?" 

In an environment where many/most nonprofits have at least one staff member and frequently rely on volunteers to provide organizational support and/or services - in a time when boards and board members find themselves called to occasionally step into volunteer mode - we may find ourselves forgetting why our governing body exists in the first place.

When board members like, even prefer, the here-and-now volunteer tasks over future-facing governance roles, the challenge to focus on the latter increases. I've encountered this scenario many, many times in my consultations with various boards. Some see work that must be done despite having limited staff. Others see "real work" that is not only necessary but deeply satisfying to carry out.

Still others come because they are asked. They have a general idea of what board work looks like and a tradition to follow that was defined by generations of board members who came before them. But they lack the complete picture of what nonprofit governance actually means and what it requires of them that others in the organization cannot fulfill.

What's so special about nonprofit boards and the governance they are called to do? That may be the bigger question that boards need to ask but many will be challenged to answer. Today's two-part question is a step in that direction. It asks them to reflect on one specific, unique contribution that they make as a leadership body - that is different from what the CEO, staff, and volunteers do - that makes a difference in the organization's mission advancement.

I can see two layers of response: one a more general reference to a role that comes with the job, the other a specific example of how they are fulfilling that responsibility. If I were facilitating this discussion, I think I'd want to see the board attempt to respond to both while emphasizing the latter element. Boards need to be constantly aware of the leadership functions of nonprofit governance so that they don't lose track of their ultimate purposes. But they also need to be able to articulate specific ways that they are accomplishing them.

And let's be honest. For a board struggling with all that is asked of it, being able to identify one example of leadership fulfilled may be a challenging first step.

The second question posed above encourages board members to be aware of their capacity needs - the skills, perspectives, expertise, etc., that they require to govern well. Some boards will find the answer to this piece to be an affirmation that they have recruited well and that they are attuned to their specific leadership needs. For others, the answer to this may be a wake-up call, to be more conscious of what they need to govern effectively and to address those needs in future recruitment processes.

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