Board governance and effectiveness lies at the heart of charities. We love our boards, but working with them can be very challenging.
Matt Fullbrook from the Clarkson Centre for Board Governance walks us through some easy but impactful steps to take to re-focus your board and repair or optimize your relationship with your board members.
Fundamentally, you need to help focus your board on where they can add value to the organization while still maintaining their fiduciary responsibilities. Here is how Matt suggests you do that:
manage your time
Have you sat in a board meeting and by the end of it, felt like nothing was accomplished? Time is precious and feeling like it’s been wasted is definitely a gutting feeling. Before the meeting starts, you need to make sure that your board is prepared ahead of time.
Matt also suggests setting a specific actionable outcome from the conversation as a group. When you put your board into a position where they’re able to effectively guide the conversation and exercise their authority, you create stronger governance. This increases the confidence of the overall health of your organization.
This means setting an agenda that specifies what are the most important things we need to talk about and how much time we want to spend talking about them. Then, during the meeting have someone with a watch measure and record how much time the group actually spent on discussing these topics.
close the information gap
The executive director is accountable to the board, not the other way around. At every organization, there is always an information gap between executive directors and their boards. It happens. They just don’t have the opportunity to interact with staff on a more consistent basis and therefore just don’t have the same amount of knowledge that the executive director does.
The best thing you can do is to address this gap, don’t ignore it. Provide your board with pre-reads a week or more before the meeting to make sure they have time to absorb the information. Be available to answer any questions about understanding the information before the meeting as well, so your board isn’t playing catch-up during the meeting.
It also helps to present the information in a new way. A lot of board members will flip through a pre-read and won’t be sure why a certain report is in there. It can be a report dating back to 20 years ago when a board member from the past said they wanted that report in it. Cut those out and replace them with something that’s new and relevant, geared towards the future. This can be a standard board package through an email or in the mail, or you can use online board portals that provide secure pre-reads and committee reports with electronic signature capabilities.
Before the meeting ends, provide an opportunity to get specific and candid feedback.
You can ask them the following:
what they think is valuable
what is redundant
what they don’t want to cover at meetings
how they want the information to be presented
what they feel underprepared on
where they might need external help
For that last question, you should be open to seeking out external help if your organization could really benefit from it and if you have the budget for it. If there are specific areas where the full board maybe doesn’t need to do that work, give the board an opportunity to hire external help. That way, if they don’t have the expertise or need permanent expertise, they can go out and get someone to help them out for a day and close the information gap.
brush up on your people skills
Every board is going to need a different set of people in terms of skills, personality and values at any given time. What you need today isn’t necessarily what the organization needs tomorrow. There is evidence that boards spend too much time looking at resumes and hire too many people with the same skill set. They are also failing to reject resumes that aren’t a good fit. Move away from resumes and focus more on the soft skills that make group decision making effective. Some of these skills could be having an independent-minded to avoid groupthink, valuing truth over power and a willingness to introduce constructive conflict.
It’s also important to evaluate your board by creating a questionnaire specific to the organization by identifying areas that are most important to it. This helps your board move towards improving and also signifies what are key metrics to evaluate success on.
Matt finds it helpful to discuss with your board the following:
What do we want to address a year from now?
What were good successes?
What needs improvement
Don’t forget how important it is for everybody on the team to reflect frequently on whether or not they have continued to implement the improved behaviour. Partner with the board chair to push priority items to discuss and keep the board accountable for improving by following up on a consistent basis. We’re creatures of habit and tend to fall back into old routines. It’s easier to measure and implement change on a weekly or monthly basis than it is to do it on a yearly basis. If you meet with your board in a year, you’re often going to find yourself in the same spot as when you did your previous meeting because you didn’t measure and monitor that change.
Whether your board is highly functional or the cause of your grey hairs, we are confident that Matt’s tips and tools can help you get the most out of your board and make sure they are getting the most out of volunteering for your organization.
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The Small Nonprofit podcast is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano