Nonprofit boards operate within two dimensions: relational and transactional. Of course, the goal of every nonprofit board is to have effective transactions, but without positive or at least civil relationships, decisions (the transactional) and the processes for making decisions can fail. Managing these dimensions is complicated, especially for the leadership, aka the officers and the chair, in particular, noting that each member is equally responsible for the success of the board.
While nonprofit board management is complicated, I believe, in lieu of best (researched and documented) practices, some of the complications can be addressed through basic common sense, so I will offer a number of common sense and tested suggestions that may reduce at least some of the complications that can affect achieving nonprofit board success.
Don’t guess about what type of persons will help conduct board business and further the mission. The governance committee can annually conduct an assessment and recommend to the board the lens and voices needed to best ensure the board can fulfill its policy, planning and evaluation jobs. Remember that the focus needs be on recruiting to fill governance duties, not volunteer duties. Board members can of course do volunteer jobs but their purpose is governance.
Ask each board member to identify prospective members. As we have learned from research, great prospects are not always found within current members’ networks. Current members must conduct searches where desired prospective candidates work, play, live, learn, dine, worship — well, every avenue but not singularly within current members’ networks.
Board Member Development
Board member development is the key to success to ensure that every member can equally and fully participate. Board development activities can be a core part of the board culture annually planned by the governance committee. Possible ideas include:
- An annual orientation that includes every member
- Mentor matches, especially for new members
- Content-specific training, particularly during regular meetings
One of the biggest challenges boards face is recruiting leadership, beginning with officers and committee chairs. As board management can be more complicated for the few who serve in leadership, doing these jobs alone is often the biggest challenge. Here are some alternate possibilities:
- Have co-chairs with more bite-sized and specific responsibilities
- Make the vice chair more involved in leading by distributing work, such as leading strategic planning and evaluation activities or the governance committee.
- Rotate meeting chairs so that each member has the opportunity to lead a meeting. A protocol can be established by the Governance Committee along with an orientation to support the current chair in facilitation and decision-making if unfamiliar with these processes. Adopting simpler rules of order (e.g., Roberta’s Rules) can help to provide a more comfortable experience for the chair. A parliamentarian member can also be helpful if using Robert's Rules of Order.
- Establish a lineage of prospective leaders and offer leadership training in advance of being seated. Adopt the philosophy that every member can participate in leading. Consider this all part of succession planning, which in the end ensures or at least reduces possible leadership gaps.
Do note that taking and sharing positions, especially for the uninitiated, definitely requires the full support of all the board. Principles each leader must share include: inspiration; enabling others to act; competence; credibility; and motivating core principles and values. Honest
If the board has a difficult time getting a quorum (you know, according to by-laws, have enough folks at the table to have a vote on an item including the meeting agenda) you have four options:
- Reduce the number of annually scheduled meetings. Boards may not be more accomplished by meeting on a monthly basis as opposed to meeting on a bi-monthly or even quarterly basis.
- Change the current days or times. Annually take a poll to determine when the majority of members are available, recognizing that time of day as well as weekends and weekdays should be considered to be most inclusive.
- Change the substance of meetings. Increased engagement can induce members to not want to miss anything. Not making the whole meeting about reports, of course, is my favorite example.
- Reduce the number of members needed for a quorum (and yes, there are consequences).
Standing committees, often unnecessarily specified in the by-laws, are one of the biggest conundrums of a board. Committees have one task: Prepare the board for the business it must accomplish. Committees do the homework for the board, digesting reams of information to ensure the board is fully informed and prepared for discussions and decisions, but they cannot substitute for the board making decisions. So how many committees could there be? Incorporate one or all three of these options.
- Have only two standing committees. Limit it to finance and governance as their ongoing board assignments are clear, necessary and required throughout the year.
- Assign task forces or special committees for short-term tasks. These can include what to do about the CEO’s performance review or the annual audit.
- Be a committee of the whole. Provide members with accurate, timely and comprehensive information ahead of meetings (through a board portal, for instance) and conduct meeting discussions accordingly. However, you may not need a committee if each board member does their homework and comes prepared for a full discussion.
These may be common sense solutions to common board management challenges. I acknowledge that those involved in governing are just trying to get everything right and there are certainly many matters and processes where common sense can be the solution.