During a recent call, my friend Samantha Jones voiced her complaints about the “festering leadership” within a nonprofit board on which she serves.
Festering…there’s a descriptive word.
The conversation went beyond her frustration with the board chair and delved into a whole range of indictments we both have of nonprofit boards.
So here you have a summation of that conversation: my suggested resolutions for nonprofit boards.
Resolutions for Board Meetings
#1: Start Using Consent Agendas. I’ve seen so many meeting agendas that include reports from every committee under the sun. What a snoozefest! Instead of wasting valuable time at meetings, use the consent agenda to dispense with all that stuff.
A consent agenda allows a board to approve a whole range of items in a single vote, without individual motions or discussion. Items can include approval of minutes; approval of committee minutes; appointments to committees; correspondence that doesn’t require discussion, or for that matter, anything else that doesn’t require discussion.
You’ll be amazing at how much time you can save for the important stuff.
#2: Put the ED’s Report in Writing. Like committee reports, Executive Director updates can be tiresome. I advocate for putting those in writing and sent in advance. Sure, give the ED time on the agenda, but only to discuss really critical matters or to seek advice.
#3: Deal With the Important Stuff First. Time is precious, and I’ve never seen a board meeting where members didn’t have to leave early or get bored after an hour or so. While everyone is fresh, put your important discussion items first. Solve a problem or discuss a new opportunity. That’s why people show up. Save the consent agenda, financial report, the ED’s report, and everything else for last.
Don’t have an important topic with which to kick off your agenda? Well, I’d say you’ve got a problem there. If you can’t come up with something truly worthwhile, then why are you meeting?
Resolutions for Governance
#4: Activate Your Governance Committee. In my opinion, one of the most important committees on your board should deal with governance. They’re often called “nominating committees,” but I think that’s too limiting.
The board governance committee should regularly take up a range of issues: board nominations; officer nominations; board evaluations; executive director evaluations, and regular review of bylaws and organizational policies.
I also think that this committee should meet quarterly, not once a year.
#5: Move Out Festering Leadership. Has your board chair been in that role for a long time? Do the same couple of people rotate in and out of that role? You may have a bylaws problem.
In my opinion, board chairs should serve no more than two terms in that role, except under unusual circumstances. Your board needs regular infusions fresh leadership.
Case in point: my friend Samantha was excited about a new fundraising initiative she created for a local animal shelter, on whose board she serves. The executive director embraced the idea. But the board chair, who has been in that role for years, did nothing with it. (She’s one of those people who only embraces ideas when they are of her own design.)
Yup, it’s time for new leadership.
#6: Board Evaluations. When was the last time you conducted a thorough evaluation of the board? What do I even mean by this?
First, take a macro look. Executive directors and other senior leaders often decry the lack of involvement of board members. Getting to the bottom of that issue can start with a board self-evaluation. There are some great evaluations tools out there that you can adapt for your organization. Do board members feel they are getting the information they need? Do they feel they are personally engaged? Do they even have a firm grasp of the mission of your organization?
The responses to such an assessment can be very illuminating.
Then there’s the micro look. And this is where the above mentioned governance committee comes into play. The committee should have an honest conversation about every member of the board. Are they attending meetings? Are they meeting the give and/or get expectations of all board members? Are they completing the tasks they agree to take on? Are they providing sage guidance and advice? Are they disruptive during meetings? Are they bringing their own personal agendas to the table?
A “problem child” on any board can be hugely disruptive. It’s up to the chair and other board colleagues to do something about it. Yup, it’s really difficult to have those conversations. But the health of the board and organization are at stake here.
#7: Board Contracts. Having a written annual agreement with each board member can help board evaluations and difficult conversations go a bit more smoothly.
I am admittedly a governance geek, but I really like the idea of an annual conversation about board members’ responsibilities three legal duties (duty of care, duty of loyalty, duty of obedience). What behaviors are consistent with upholding these duties?
The contract should go deeper and be customized to each individual. What, precisely, are they willing to do to raise money? To promote advocacy? List each of these commitments out in the document.
Here’s another tip: develop the annual contract and present it with the annual conflict of interest disclosure form that every member should sign.
#8: Institute a Zero-Based Committee Structure. Yeah, I wasn’t sure what this meant when I first stumbled across the concept while researching this post.
Just like with zero-based budgeting, where department managers start with zero dollars and have to justify their expenses, the board should consider eliminating all committees at the end of each fiscal year.
The purpose is to have a deliberate conversation about committee structure. Boards — in consultation with senior leadership — should determine what the organization needs in the coming year, and the ideal configuration of board resources to meet those needs.
I think it’s a cool idea, as I’ve seen so many dysfunctional committees in my years doing this work. But I would take it one step further.
Consider zero-based committee assignments. Year after year, the same people serve on the same committees. And it’s human nature to become complacent. So as you’re creating new committees every year, put some deliberation into who should be on those committees. And don’t just default to the usual suspects. There may be people on your board, for example, who don’t know much about finance, but might really like to stretch themselves and learn something new. Take advantage of that.
Glenn is a nonprofit strategist who loves working with small- to mid-size organizations that want to innovate and grow. Check out his website, and email to find out how he can help you. You can also follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
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