Board development is one of those “sharpen the saw” skills that is too easy to let slip. Yet if your organization makes it a habit and builds it into its regular practices, it will serve to keep your board vital and contributing to the organization’s health.
BoardSource describes a seven step process for building your board.
Identify – The first step is to identify what skills, characteristics and connections are important for your organization. Once you have identified what you need on your board, you can then ask what you have already and what is missing? Where can we find board members to fill identified gaps? Organizations often create a matrix to complete this assessment. Try to go beyond just your current board members networks to recruit board members for greater diversity.
Cultivate - You then need to come up with a list of potential people to cultivate that match your needs. Remember to start building a relationship and getting to know the person before you make the ask. How can you help them get to know your organization and keep them informed of your progress? How can you get to know them, their skills, talents and interests? What ways could they become involved with your organization short of board membership? Having stepping stone roles to leadership gives you greater insight into what people bring and their capacities.
Recruit - When you go to make the pitch be sure to tell them why you want and need them on your board. How can you make this personal? Be clear about your expectations of board members and their responsibilities. Too often people minimize these requirements thinking it is the only way to get people to say yes. If you minimize the expectations, you will likely get folks who then don’t show up the way you really need them to for your organization. It is also helpful to be able to articulate what benefit they will receive by being involved. This could be skills they are able to develop, relationships and networks they will be able to plug into the satisfaction of being involved in something important.
Orient – When new people come on the board, it is key to give them an orientation. This orientation should cover your organization, what it does and how it does things. It also needs to address the key elements of board service. Don’t assume that folks know what being on a board entails. Would a buddy system with a more experienced board member make sense? Beyond just an orientation session, are there ways that you can integrate education into your board meetings? Holding some time for regular education sessions for your whole board will help keep the board’s role front and center with the whole group.
Involve - Once someone has joined your board, how will you go about discovering your board members interests and availability? Do you have committees and task forces that would be supported by their skills and talents? People often volunteer to learn new skills and flex strengths that they do not get to use as much in their day job. Don’t assume because someone does something for a living such as marketing or accounting that that is the role they want to play with your organization. They may want to flex leadership muscles they are not having the opportunity to use at work. How will you solicit feedback on their experience? How will you hold people accountable for what they commit to do? What are additional ways you can express appreciation for what they contribute to your organization?
Evaluate – A well functioning board evaluates its work. A good practice is to conduct an annual assessment of its performance. Many nonprofit support centers have template assessments you can use for self-assessment, such as this one. With this regular practice, it serves to remind board members of all aspects of their responsibilities and can help you catch any problems early.
Rotate - Strong boards develop new leadership. This is facilitated by policies on term limits and enforced time off the board. Often times board members can re-up for a second term, but don’t let this become an automatic practice. Before re-electing someone for an additional term, consider your matrix of skills/needs. Does this person still fit your requirements? Do you have policies that enable you to ask a board member to resign if they have been inactive and/or missed a certain number of meetings? How are you developing new leadership? Do you have ways for people to get involved and volunteer other than board service? How are you preparing people for the chair role and other officer positions?
In addition to these seven, I would add “celebrate” and “educate” as two constants to support your board’s service.
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What does all this growth mean for us going forward?
Challenge: An education related organization had accomplished all the key goals in their current strategic plan. Over this period, the organization experienced substantial growth both in the number of clients it was serving as well as the scope of the services they were providing the field. With the increased staff strength, the board had become accustomed to relying on staff for direction and strategic thinking. The organization needed to assess the implications of this growth, ensure that there was alignment of staff and board in order to set direction and clear goals for the next 3-5 years.
Approach: After interviews with each of the board members, and external stakeholder interviews as well as focus groups with staff, I facilitated a one-day retreat with the board and staff leadership. The retreat focused on:
• conducting an environmental scan to identify key trends impacting the organization’s work,
• reviewing the themes from the interviews and focus groups and discuss their implications
• envisioning the organization’s future impact on the field,
• resulting in identifying two to three key strategic goals for the organization.
Results: The organization now has a new strategic plan with clear support from both the board and staff leadership. The process helped the board step into its strategic role. Board meetings now have time dedicated to focusing on strategic questions. Staff leadership was also able to recognize how some of their actions encouraged the board to rely on them. Thus they are now equipped to make different choices moving forward. They can be clearer about what is staff work and what is the board’s responsibility.
Are our board and staff focused on the right things?
Challenge: A local land trust organization had a regular good practice of conducting a board self-assessment each year. Over the past couple years, a few indicators created some concern. The group decided it would benefit from outside facilitation for its annual board staff retreat to dive into the issues raised in the self-assessment, including roles and responsibilities between board and staff.
Approach: In addition to the board self-assessment results, I conducted a survey of staff and board. My goal was to learn about the board’s current concerns and to understand the staff’s perspective on the organization’s current state. During the retreat, after a brief presentation on nonprofit life cycles, the group considered where their organization stood in its development. I then shared the themes from the survey and had the group discuss the implications.
Board and staff learned that they had more in common than they thought on their perspectives of what the organization needed to improve in terms of operations. It also became clear that the board was eager to stay at the governance level and focus on longer-term strategic issues. Through small group work, the groups considered its current initiatives and areas for future development and sketched out next steps. The group then gave each small group feedback.
Results: Through the retreat, the board and staff were able to open up conversations focused on roles and responsibilities that they had had some trepidation about addressing. The conversations revealed more agreement than individuals had expected. The group identified areas for growth and left with increased clarity on roles, goals and next steps.
Emerging from Crisis
Challenge: A small watershed organization had survived a tumultuous several years after the death of its founder and long-standing executive director. During the founder’s tenure, the board had been a following, governance board. The board led by a new board chair had navigated many challenges including an unsuccessful merger attempt, theft by a caretaker at one of the organization’s properties and other problems. The board decided the organization needed to take stock and reimagine itself, making the most of the legacy left by the founder and rebuilding an organization to meet both today’s realities and live into a new vision its future.
Approach: I interviewed the board members and supported board members as they interviewed external stakeholders. Through the interviews, it became clear that the organization while it wanted to engage in longer range strategic planning it was only in the position to do short range planning. Most board members had been involved with the organization for years and many were burned out. Yet some found it challenging to let go and allow new leadership to emerge. Many had come on during the founder’s tenure and were not prepared to engage in the hands on work that the organization now needed from its board and it now had no staff. I facilitated a one-day retreat to help the group uncover what they had learned from their experience and think about where the organization stood in terms of the phases of development that nonprofits typically go through and what it meant for what was required from the board at its present stage of development.
Results: Over the course of the organization’s several years of turn around, the board chair had essentially been working part time for the organization without compensation. During the retreat, the board decided to make her executive director and pay her for her work. A new board chair was named. Several board members announced their departure making way for new leadership to engage with the organization. The board also set several short-term goals for the year.
Building Shared Leadership
Challenge: A well-respected state level education nonprofit decided to celebrate its 30-year anniversary by engaging in strategic planning to envision its future and set goals for the next 3-5 years. The organization had emerged from a challenging period in its history during which long-standing but no longer financially sustainable programs were sun-setted. The executive director who had been with the organization since its founding hoped to strengthen the organization’s staff and board leadership by increasing shared leadership. The board was small and the majority of it members are relatively new to the organization. The executive director priorities included considering whether the organization’s name adequately represents its work; how to build capacity within the staff and board for greater shared leadership with the executive director as well as longer-term succession planning.
Approach: I interviewed all the board members, external stakeholders as well as the staff. I facilitated a session with board, staff and a few external stakeholders that encompassed a look back at the organization's accomplishments over its 30 year history, considered the trends in the wider environment impacting the organization and reviewed the themes that emerged from the interviews. The group then discussed what implications the trends and themes had for the organization as it considered its future direction.
Results: Through the interviews a number of issues emerged including the weakness of the board. Through the feedback and discernment process in the first session, the board decided to take a break from strategic planning and focus on its own development. Six months later the board had recruited new members and taken steps to create more a sense of shared leadership with the executive director.
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My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.