Strategies for Moving a Board Beyond Operational Thinking
From where I sit, I've learned that highly effective boards maintain harmony among three areas: oversight, insight and foresight. Thinking operationally is, largely, the role of the CEO and the other day-to-day leaders of a nonprofit.
Boards, on the other hand, need to move beyond operational thinking and lean into strategizing about the future. I understand how that notion falls into the “easier said than done” category.
Maintaining the balance of roles has become increasingly challenging for boards of directors in recent years within the context of external changes. These changes increasingly call for boards to dig into operations more than what I would have traditionally recommended.
For example, in senior living, new regulations for skilled nursing units require the board to have knowledge of Quality Assurance Performance Improvement (QAPI) processes and related outcomes. Other nonprofit industries also have standards enacted by regulatory agencies that also impact their board’s focus.
Although changing regulations may be a priority now, pivoting a board to consider the future in the context of other time demands is more important than ever.
Every board is different, and the strategies that help focus one board may not work with another. It’s an art, not a science. Still, there are a few universal practices that allow boards to make the most of their time and effectively advance the organization’s mission.
1. Develop the Board-CEO Relationship
A positive partnership between the board chair and the CEO of a nonprofit can make all the difference. Each member of the board is responsible for keeping one another and the board focused in the appropriate areas. But, more likely than not, the board chair and the CEO need to row in tandem, driving the overall effort alongside each other.
2. Move Beyond the Comfort Zone
Many board members focus on operational tasks when they join a nonprofit organization because of the comfort factor — their expertise lies in a certain area, so they naturally look to impact that same area as a board member.
For example, if you bring in someone with years of finance or accounting experience, they may gravitate to a fiduciary oversight role. Yes, that position is essential and needed in a board, but a good CEO has those tasks assigned already within the internal team. With a strong leader, board members can be inspired to focus on looking ahead and transforming the board and the nonprofit they serve.
3. Recruit and Prepare the Right People
Part of putting together a board is finding the right diversity — age, race, gender and professional background. But another step in recruiting the right people is looking at their experience serving on nonprofit boards. It's important to know their role and responsibilities on these boards to understand — and fill — any gaps in understanding the practice of good governance.
4. Provide Education and Background
Has your organization done everything it can to prepare board members to think strategically and identify areas they should think about in the context of the future? Taking it further, is your board prepared to engage in broad-scope discussions? Do they have enough background on key issues? Have you addressed any underlying organizational dynamics when it comes to your board? (e.g., inner circles, everyone having a chance to speak).
5. Bring in Third-Party Validation
Even when the board chair and the CEO know that the board should focus on the future (at least partly), it is easy to get caught up in the here and now. Bringing in a non-biased consultant can help drive efforts forward. Most importantly, a third-party consultant can offer a fresh perspective and help make small, incremental changes that will lead to lasting impact. Think of it as an evolution, not a revolution.
Like employees, board members may need to prioritize the many tasks and issues they face. Additionally, as volunteers, they want to know the time they invest is making a difference. Nonprofit leaders, particularly board chairs, CEOs and board liaisons, should make the most of this trusted resource by properly attributing their time between the areas where a board member's expertise is most needed: Oversight, insight and foresight.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Related story: A Guide to Having a Board Recruitment Strategy