Tuning Up Your Board
In my first executive director position, I forgot about the board. Chalk it up to inexperience, but I didn’t yet understand how the board could make me a more effective executive, or how they could boost our success. While I met all the technical requirements and complied with the usual responsibilities, in my heart I felt the board was mostly a nuisance. It was only later, with experience and professional maturity (and the help of a good coach), that I was able to recognize my error.
You and I can work with the board to take our nonprofit to the next level of management and fundraising success. Here’s a few ways that have proven successful for me.
Start by Stepping Up
Although the board chooses the executive director, the best executive directors understand that they get the board that they create. It’s a paradox, to be sure, almost like babysitting an older sibling. The executive director has to train and guide the board to become strong, functional, strategic and collegial—even as the executive works for the board.
Some nonprofit executive directors may feel awkward about “bossing” the boss. Others, recognizing that the board is not firing on all cylinders, tune out. They sit back and glare angrily when attending board meetings and mark time until a new job offer comes along, or perhaps they count the days until retirement. In order to align their visions, the executive and the board must often work through the differences they have. And work through them they must, because without such alignment, no organization will ever move forward as successfully as it could. It is, therefore, incumbent upon all parties to cultivate this special and determinant relationship, but most often it starts with the CEO stepping up.
You Must Be Curious
In the old TV series, “Columbo,” after everyone had said their piece about whatever criminal case was in play, Lieutenant Columbo (played by Peter Falk) would almost always do the same thing before walking out the door. He’d stop in the doorway, look back into the room and say, “Just one more thing,” or “There’s something that bothers me.” He took every inquiry and pushed it one step deeper. For my money, Columbo is about as good as it gets as a model of what the CEO and the board need to be aligned around, the notion of inquiry. Not to solve crimes, of course, but to uncover ways to innovate. Remember Peter Drucker’s definition of innovation: that which brings a new dimension on performance. You need to be that curious.
Determine Your Board’s Core Strength—and Build
A surefire way to tune-up the board is to determine its core strength and build on that. Most boards have one, dominant, core strength—an aspect of who they are that comes to them easily, like event planning or perhaps community networking. That’s great. However, to tune-up your board, you need to deepen and expand beyond your core strength. Development of these new strengths must fill the gaps in your board’s skillset. For instance, your board may wish to develop a new strength in long-term planning. Or maybe they want to start a quality assurance program. Developing new core strengths can be tough at first, but their importance in galvanizing advancement cannot be overstated.
Core strengths come in many shapes and sizes. Some boards are strong on compliance. They know their conduct is congruent with their bylaws and other regulations they have adopted. Other boards are strong in their sensitivity to the clients they serve. They regularly ask themselves, “Are we helping the clients and doing well by them?” Some boards are glued together by prestige; trustees enjoy belonging to the organization and want to be affiliated with it as people of influence. Still others may be especially strong at fundraising, long-range planning, strategic thinking or program evaluation. The list goes on.
Determining your board’s core strength can usually be done by reviewing past minutes, attending board meetings and having a few conversations with key trustees. The dominate driver will inevitably show itself. You may even feel you already have an intuitive sense of your board’s core strength just while reading these characterizations. One caution: Be sure that you have a valid reason for developing one or more new core strengths. One board once hired me to create a legacy reserve fund in honor of their aging CEO, but they never checked with him to see if he wanted that homage. He did not. Assumptions must be checked.
Then Seek Alignment
What do we mean when we say that the executive director and board’s visions are aligned? It is not as though one day, if by magic, they suddenly begin to march in lockstep. By one measure, we could say that a board and executive director are aligned when they can both agree on a five-year plan or agree when annual reviews should happen.
A word about the process it takes to achieve alignment. The way we acquire alignment is multi-faceted. Do you have a real strategic plan in place, one with community and client input, so your trustees understand the direction for organization growth? If not, that may be the right next step. Perhaps a business plan is needed on a particular aspect of our agency? What about a fundraising audit? What about using evaluation as way to align? All these methods and many ideas will help you achieve the alignment you need with the board.
Now that you’ve got the board tuned up, don’t overlook proactively retaining trustees who have contributed positively. Studies show that the board members who stay on the board the longest and see their role as contributing to its advancement are those most engaged with your mission. Boards that discuss long-range plans that actually solve the social problem that the agency was founded to solve often have the highest and best retention of their trustees, not to mention the largest philanthropy from those same trustees. It’s important that you make sure your board members are engaged with your mission, that you thank and recognize your board (often), that your board members know and connect with the clients the organization serves in a meaningful way and that you have one board member whose primary responsibility is to facilitate the teamwork of the board. Did you get all that?
Having addressed these issues, your tune-up is now complete!