The Path to CEO and Board Partnership: How to Supercharge Your Board
A common feature of successful nonprofits is a highly engaged board of directors; a board partnership with the CEO on the right issues and investing quality time and resources in the organization they lead. If your board is falling short of this goal, there are steps that you can take to improve their performance.
The first step is to realistically assess where the board is, which can be simply diagnosed by observing their behavior at a board meeting. Boards fall into essentially four phases of engagement, which correspond with their behavior at board meetings: listening, reading, reporting, partnering.
A listening board is the least engaged and most easily recognized. At board meetings, the staff report to the board, which listens, nods and occasionally asks questions. The dynamic in the meeting (which also translates to behavior outside of the board meeting) is that the staff drives both the strategy and its implementation. The board fails to own either the direction or the results. Often, they unanimously approve any and all motions. This ownership vacuum can mean the CEO finds him/herself alone when the inevitable crisis hits.
Have you ever attended board meetings where board members simply read out loud the reports prepared for them by the staff? These boards understand that board members are supposed to lead aspects of the organization, but board members haven’t begun to step into those responsibilities. In many ways, this kind of board is less functional than a listening board, as it is hard to motivate attendance and active participation. Over time, the caliber of board members will decrease as the board members who can add the most value are put off by the lack of opportunity to make a difference.
A reporting board is well on the way to becoming a partnering board. At these board meetings, you’ll see board members referencing bullet points, prepared by staff, but they are also able to talk off the cuff about key issues and can answer most questions. Board meetings of this type emerge thanks to interaction with staff and engagement in strategy.
This is the ideal and “engaged” board in action. Board members are engaged in conversation with each other and staff. They interact in collaborative and constructive ways, both at the board meeting and beyond. The board drives strategy and the staff drives the details. But both fully understand and have input on what the other is doing.
If you’re board isn’t at the partnering stage, don’t worry. In my unscientific observation of numerous nonprofit boards each year, most aren’t.
So how can you move your board from where it is to a partnering board, and once engaged, keep it there? I think it boils down to the CEO focusing on communications, conversations and giving and getting.
A CEO needs to have methodical, regular and substantive communication with their board. This communication should encompass all three of the following areas:
- Financials. When the prior month’s financials close each month, the CEO should circulate the financials to all board members with a narrative on the financial results. This narrative should be transparent and call attention to areas of concern, such as falling behind budget or a weak cash position. This practice illustrates a CEO’s grasp of the financials and reinforces to the board that they have accountability for the nonprofit’s financial success. Boards typically review financials at board meetings, and certainly that should continue; but this extra touch point is very helpful and focuses board members attention on the financials and potential consequences for the organization.
- Good news. During my time as a CEO, I got into the habit of sending an email each month with the results of a piece of programmatic or fundraising activity that I was particularly excited about. I always used this brief communication to acknowledge the staff and board member(s) who played a role in the success. If the news lent itself to including a picture, I did this as well. It was a simple (at most three paragraphs), chatty and upbeat message. This allows board members to feel and catch the enthusiasm the CEO has for work being accomplished in near real time.
- Overall update. As a CEO, each month I would also do no more than a two-page update, running down the highlights from each of our business units and acknowledging the staff and board members who played a role. I find praise, even if not entirely earned, is a great motivator that encourages board members to lift their game. I recommend producing and sending the update via mail in hard copy. The extra work and expense is a worthwhile investment. Not all board members process information in the same way. Sending a hard copy makes it accessible to the technophobes in the group and gives it more weight.
An effective CEO needs to meet with their board chair or president at least once a month. There should be no standing agenda, and the time should be used to exchange ideas and truly partner. The CEO should drive the conversation, sharing what is causing them stress and seeking advice, counsel and mentorship from their board leader. This informal and regular conversation ensures the board’s leader is engaged. If the board chair or president baulks at dedicating this time each month, I’d suggest they might not be the right person for the job. The right board leader is probably busy enough professionally that dedicating this time will be a challenge, but if they take their volunteer responsibility seriously they will find ways to make it happen.
CEOs should also meet with each board member at least twice a year, one-on-one. One of these two meetings can be used to formally review the board member’s activities, fundraising and engagement. But the other session can be more casual, allowing the CEO to seek advice on the issues of the day.
If board members are to be your partners, an effective CEO must invest time to create this partnership.
Giving and Getting
Personal philanthropic investment and raising funds are key responsibilities of board members. I strongly advocate a specific give-and-get goal for each board member that is clearly articulated each year. Of course, there will be exceptions based on specific skills, and room for non-fundraising board members. In a balanced board, 70 percent or more of the board members will be reaching their give-and-get goals. With that said, every board member should be expected to make a personal contribution, no matter how modest. Having “skin in the game” in and of itself increases engagement.
A CEO that embraces communications, conversations and giving-and-getting will go a long way towards the goal of a truly partnering board.
Craig Shelley is a managing director at Orr Group, which provides nonprofits with strategy, fundraising, leadership and management solutions and has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Craig brings an entrepreneurial approach to fundraising, nonprofit management and strategy. Prior to joining Orr Group, Craig served in a variety of positions with the Boy Scouts of America, most recently as the national director of development and corporate alliances. He serves on the executive committee of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ New York City Chapter and the editorial advisory board for Nonprofit PRO, and is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE).