“Do you ever see a really great Board of Directors?”
Nonprofit staff and board leaders ask us this question all the time. It reminds me of an old joke:
Q: Why are adults always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up?
A: They are looking for ideas.
Recently I had the opportunity to work with a truly great board when I participated in a board-only retreat organized by the board development committee. The purpose of the day was for members to discuss long-term challenges and opportunities, question assumptions, and think more globally, all without the constraints of having to make decisions or reach a specific outcome.
While the day was structured around specific topics, the discussion ranged widely, covering everything from board diversity, chief operating officers, and endowment funds to conservation strategy, community engagement, and the parameters for growth. At one point, someone asked about the best practices of nonprofit boards, and as I started to answer, I realized that they embodied those best practices (or were moving quickly in that direction).
Here’s a snapshot of what they are doing right.
Start at the beginning.
New members attend orientation and have a peer mentor during their first year of service. Individual board members take responsibility for knowing the organization, knowing staff, and knowing each other. They are committed to working collectively and respect each other’s skills, experience, and perspectives. A true sense of camaraderie exists, and retreats and more informal social get-togethers help build the board’s sense of being a team.
Make the space between the board meetings count.
Staff leadership makes sure to engage each board member individually in the way that best uses their unique skills, experience, expertise, and interests outside of regular board meetings and committee work. They regularly spend meaningful time with members and let each member do what they do best for the organization – soliciting advice from one member about a complex transaction, asking another to host a house party, bringing another along on a fishing trip with a funder, having another develop and lead the trail hikes, etc. This approach fosters deep commitment and engagement among board members.
Focus on mission and goals.
The organization uses its strategic plan.This makes it easier for the board to stay focused on the mission-related work of the organization rather than spending time on tangents, random and unrelated ideas, or worse – the dreaded mission drift. This harnesses precious resources toward success and impact. The focus on the mission and commitment to a few core goals helps board members be realistic and aligns staff and board efforts. No one wastes time on indulging the ideas that may be creative or exciting but do not actually achieve goals.
Partnership in the truest sense of the word.
Staff and board work in tandem. A good partnership allows – in fact encourages – substantive and trusting conversation. Because the board is informed and focused, they can thoughtfully discuss the issues, challenge assumptions, and bring new ideas and perspectives. It’s not about just saying yes to staff presentations, and it is also more than just respectful disagreement. It is about dialogue toward the best solution or answer. As this board in particular continues to evolve, they are committed to building their board voice and staying engaged at the right level.
Really great boards understand and walk that fine line between oversight and interference. They do more than just the fundamentals of governance (e.g., monitoring finances, setting policy, strategic planning) and do generative work. They look longer-term, they steer toward that greater vision of what needs to be or could be, and they shift paradigms when necessary. Perhaps most importantly, they are attuned to changes in their environment and are willing to adapt, grow, and develop as needed. This board does the work of the board.
Sincere and on-message ambassadors.
All of these practices enable board members to eloquently and passionately talk to others about the organization and its work. The organization is top-of-mind, and they find themselves naturally introducing friends, colleagues, and audiences to the organization. It is a part of their life they love to share. This authenticity is contagious and attractive to like-minded community members.
This board can function at such a high level because the staff also employs best practices. They are competent, skilled, and passionate, having worked hard to carry out the mission and adapt and change over the years. They plan the work, and they work the plan. Together, this board and staff constitute a successful and solid organization where everyone contributes at the right level.