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If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd
Educate our staff about the board's ultimate roles and impact
When we think of organizational learning needs related to the board and its governance responsibilities, we generally focus that energy on the board itself. But there is a related need, one that, when met, expands the potential for the board's success and, ultimately, their impact on and for the organization.
This "one thing" may feel like a bigger stretch than some of the others. It's also unusual, since its focus is on staff rather than board. But stick with me as I make a case for this learning need.
Educating board members about staff and the programs that they support is standard orientation fare for our volunteer leaders. One bottom-line result, if we are successful in explaining that work, is awareness of who is responsible and how that contributes to meeting program needs (and, by extension, a step toward mission fulfillment). Ongoing exposure to, and information about, that work deepens the board's understanding and fuels its own thinking and actions.
Depending on who is being asked, we can find different perspectives regarding how close the board should get to staff members and their work. (I'm in the "as long as they're not circumventing the CEO's authority, exposure is a good thing" camp.) Wherever your organization falls on the board/staff interaction continuum, spending time acquainting staff with the board's purpose and governance contributions should be time well spent.
Why? Well, for starters, the outcomes of board actions directly impact the staff and the work that they are able to do. Whether it is approving budget allocations for those services (and their salaries), identifying community needs that become program priorities, or committing to fundraising goals that provide the facilities in which they work, the board touches pretty much everything that staff members do.
If staff understand what the board is doing and why, they are in a better place to inform and support that work. If staff members are respected parts of the process, they are in a place to own its outcomes - even when those outcomes don't always match their individual ideas of how things should be done.
I've worked with staff. I've consulted with staff. I've been staff. I can say, from all three perspectives, that the better staff understand the board's purpose and and closer they are to informing that purpose, the better prepared they will be to ensure its success. In all of those experiences, I've found awareness of nonprofit governance generally, and their nonprofit board's role specifically, to be at best incomplete and sometimes almost non-existent. That's not good.
How do we build staff understanding of the board's work and support for that work? Here are a few ideas for facilitating that:
- Make introduction of the board's governance responsibilities part of new staff orientation. Consider making face-to-face introduction, to the board chair or the board as a whole, part of that process.
- Make by-laws, minutes and other board materials accessible to staff. The more transparent the board's governance work, the lower the level of mystery and the potential for misunderstanding.
- When job duties fit charges or specific initiatives, assign staff members to work with board committees. This builds ownership of those groups' outcomes and informs the work itself by providing a staff voice and sharing applicable knowledge to deliberations.
- Invite senior staff to participate in board deliberations about issues and programs where they have direct knowledge or experience to inform those discussions.
- Invite the board chair (and/or other board leaders) to open meetings with staff, offering opportunities to share information and respond to questions.
- Consider assigning a staff liaison to the board, perhaps a rotating responsibility, to report back highlights of meetings to their peers. (Provides additional exposure to the work and the people. Rotating process reduces the burden of after-hours commitment.)
- At minimum, ask the CEO to provide that report at a staff meeting.
- Where appropriate, encourage board members to provide volunteer support at public events (as volunteers) to offer additional opportunities to work with and around staff members.
Those are just a few examples of ways to bridge the gap and, in the process, increase staff understanding and appreciation for the board's leadership contributions. I've been around enough nonprofits to know that some will be more palatable than others. I also know readers undoubtedly have additional - probably better - recommendations for accomplishing this "one thing."
Whatever feels right for you and your staff, the bottom line remains the same: staff members who understand what governance is and how their own boards fulfill it are less likely to resent that function and are better prepared to support it.