Take Nonprofit Boardsmanship to a Whole New Level: Install Relational Governance to Your Board
Q: Our board members, and the board as a whole, has had a lot of training and has read a lot about the duties of a nonprofit board. We have a board manual, as well as policies and procedures in place. We have a governance committee that does a good job with recruitment, orientation and annual evaluation, and it keeps our policies, procedures and manual current. Our board meeting uses a consent agenda, and the focus for each board meeting includes fiduciary, strategic and/or generative matters. And this is where our job as board members begin and end. I feel like something is missing.
A: What you are describing, for want of alternative language, is transactional governance. Transactional governance is what fiduciary duty calls the board to do. Your board, based on your description, is fulfilling its fundamental fiduciary duties and your board should be complimented for its efficiency.
At the same time, all the “order” installed in the board is just that: order. But these same mechanisms do not bind members in their efforts to conduct transactions that reinforce what brought members to the board in the first place; nor, I would pose, do all these transactions translate into action that provides the members with a feeling of mission and purpose. What is not addressed in transactional governance (playing by the rulebook, fulfilling legal responsibilities) is the relationships between the members, the exec and the community.
What is missing, I further pose, is the non-transactional ingredients—the relational elements that, in effect, are the glue that defines why individuals come to the table; holds the boards together; and stimulates the passion. Relational governance contributes to the quality of transactional activity, while adding the benefits of inclusivity, and captures values and motives and, most importantly, engagement that otherwise is absent and missing for individual board members who begin to wonder “what is exactly keeping them on the board.”
Does any of the following sound familiar?
- Members don’t listen when a member speaks.
- Members “talk over” each other.
- Decisions may get made, but with little depth and/or focus.
- There are often not even enough members to constitute a by-law defined quorum.
- Members just don’t like each other and would never otherwise be in the same room for any other occasion.
What is happening is transactional governance—getting the job done, but without the passion and the motives to do more than (maybe) come to the board meeting.
A relational governance framework can, I believe, change what goes on between board members, staff and the community—including donors. A relational governance framework can take nonprofit boardsmanship to a whole new level—one that is motivating and captivating and addresses the many challenges nonprofit boards face today.
So what might be steps to install relational governance in your board? Some suggestions include:
- The board chair should meet at least once a year, if not bi-annually, with each board member to hear their thoughts about how they are doing as board members—pursuing their own personal passions, fulfilling their fiduciary duties and also providing insights about how they believe the organization is doing. (And yes, the governance committee could take on this task and report to the chair).
- The chair should can insert a relational “moment” as a part of every board meeting. Examples include asking members to share one experience they had that really pleased or excited them or talk about a good book or movie and why they think so. This relationship-building activity will prove helpful when it comes time to discuss more difficult organizational matters as this will provide deeper understanding to members as to the rationale that informs discussion and decisions.
- A buddy system should be put in place to ensure every board member is “accompanied” on their journey as a member. Buddies should schedule at least a quarterly “meet’ with their buddy, where they, too, can talk about goals and assess progress as well as ensure that the governance committee is aware of any pitfalls or challenges with policies and processes.
- Board meetings should include a mission moment that involves some sharing (likely by staff or a consumer) about a program, its benefits and challenges. An extra moment should provide members with time to ask questions and engage with each other to discuss how this program furthers mission and what future discussions should be conducted from a strategic and generative (problem-solving) perspective.
- Board orientations and annual meetings should include the basic transactional materials, but should also include team building or getting-to-know you activities or exercises.
In summary, transactional governance is what fiduciary duty calls the board to do. Relational governance provides transactional governance purpose and meaning. Relational governance moves a board from efficiency to effectiveness with an appreciation that decision-making is not made in a vacuum of “just the facts,” but reflects passions, values and experiences that are not otherwise highlighted or necessarily felt in the regular conduct of business.