Fuel the Operations of Your Nonprofit with a Dashboard

excep-boards-screensBy Peter Manzetti, director, Governance, Risk and Compliance Services, Friedman LLP

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place in New Orleans on November 9 & 10. We invite you to join us.

At first glance, driving a car and overseeing the operations of a nonprofit organization might not seem to have much in common. Look a little closer, though, and similarities emerge. As a driver, your objective is to get from Point A to Point B without getting lost, stuck in traffic, involved in an accident, or ticketed. As a member of a nonprofit board or senior management team, your goal is to get your organization from Point A — where it is today — to Point B — where it wants or needs to be. Along the way, you want to comply with all pertinent laws and regulations, avoid any actions that damage the organization’s credibility and viability, and keep your “vehicle” in good working order, so it performs well throughout the journey.

One important tool all drivers rely on to monitor a car’s performance is the dashboard. There, right in front of the steering wheel, are displays that tell you the car’s speed, how much fuel is in the tank, etc. If you spot a police car, you glance down at the speedometer, discover that you’re going 85 in a 65-mph zone, and slow down. If the fuel gauge nears “E,” you stop at the next gas station. Without the information provided by the dashboard, you may still get from Point A to Point B, but there will likely be a number of bumps along the way.

As a leader of a nonprofit, a tool comparable to a car’s dashboard would prove invaluable as you guide your organization toward the fulfillment of its mission. Moreover, nonprofits are often required to demonstrate an acceptable return on donor/grantor funds invested and provide “evidence-based” data to back up their claims of accomplishment with watchdog groups, such as Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, and with the general public.

If you’re looking for some practical tips on how to focus and align your vision and “drive” success for your organization, come to November 10th’s BLF 2015 session titled Using a Financial Performance Dashboard to Engage and Inform Your Board.  At the session, my colleague Amish Mehta and I will provide you with an overview of one nonprofit board’s journey to integrate the dashboard approach into its oversight responsibilities and facilitate dialogue with the organization’s senior management to discuss the things that really matter.


What Does It Take to Stand Out and Excel in the Nonprofit Sector?

house-blogBy Marshall H. Ginn, CFRE, founder, Capital Development Strategies LLC; Selection Committee Chair, Management Excellence Award, Center for Nonprofit Advancement

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place in New Orleans on November 9 & 10. We encourage you to join us.

In September, I attended the Nonprofit Management Institute presented by Stanford Social Innovation Review and the Association of Fundraising Professionals. The theme was “Resilience,” and we were given an opportunity explore this topic from a variety of useful perspectives. One of the presenters, the futurist and author Andrew Zolli, spoke of resilience as an organization’s ability to build “regenerative capacity.” He said those organizations that could sense emerging risks, responded effectively to disruption, and possessed a culture of learning and transformation were most likely to be highly resilient.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen a real evolution within the nonprofit sector, with the characteristics that distinguish a nonprofit as truly “excellent” becoming ever more complex and sophisticated. I have seen this first-hand in the nonprofits I’ve encountered through the Management Excellence Award presented in the Washington, DC region. The selection committee, which I chair, takes notice of resilience during our examination of the nonprofits who apply for this prestigious award. And for many of the finalists and winners, it has been their ability to weather significant disruptions or challenges that has been one of the key qualities setting them apart.

For some finalists, it was riding through the Recession and coming out the other end with solid finances that set them apart. For others, it was surviving serious challenges with changes in executive leadership forcing the board to step up its game to become true leaders. For yet others, it was significant policy shifts that threatened core initiatives central to the organization’s work and called on the entire organization to engage with the community and build coalitions to get the work done. These organizations sensed those emerging risks, responded to the disruptions, and learned from the experiences to become stronger organizations.

Such nonprofits serve as leaders in the sector, providing great models and examples for others to follow. They are unafraid to take appropriate risks and to engage in challenging conversations to advance their cause. They use data and a deep understanding of their abilities to affect real change and encourage others to join them. They are leading movements and transforming entire communities through their efforts and engagement of others in their issues and work.

This quality of self-confidence is just one of the common traits I found when examining more than a dozen nonprofits that have succeeded as either finalists or semifinalists with the Management Excellence Award. (The other two qualities were self-awareness and selflessness.) Over the years, the selection committee has changed up our application questions to capture the special qualities exhibited by these organizations. We had moved beyond simply asking for copies of a strategic plan or a financial policies and procedures manual, for example. Now we inquire about a nonprofit’s commitment to transparency and upholding the public trust. We examine their ability to learn and adapt. We want to know about capacity building, collaboration. and risk management. We want them to show us how they are demonstrating leadership within the sector.

Our asking these new questions provides us with a window into the cutting edge of excellence in nonprofit management. It has created a template that we can use to look at our own organizations and explore where we are in our own evolution. For staff and board leaders, it provides fodder for robust conversations about organizational strengths as well as challenges. For philanthropic leaders, it highlights the power of “changing up the questions” to get at what we really want to know. It shows that there is more to an organization than can be discovered through a due-diligence checklist.

A deeper exploration of this is in the paper “What’s Leadership Go to Do With It?” which can be found on the resources page of the Capital Development Strategies website. This paper was also adapted into an article for BoardSource’s e-newsletter, The Spark!, called “The Evolution of Excellence.” This paper will form the basis of a presentation at the BoardSource Leadership Forum, where I will explore these traits and talk about real-world examples of winning organizations putting these qualities into practice. I will be joined by a board member of one of those winning organizations who will share her perspective on the board’s role in creating a culture where such excellence can thrive. I hope you can join us.



Modeling the Nonprofit Board Behavior We Seek

gears-blogBy Susan Howlett, consultant and author

This post is one in a series written by experts who will be presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

Do you ever complain about your board members? Maybe they’re not giving as generously as you think they could. Or they’re not talking up your organization or asking their contacts to contribute time, in-kind gifts, money, or sponsorship.

What if they’re not the problem? Perhaps we haven’t been offering them good models to follow. Here are three things we can examine about our own behavior that might change theirs:

Are we treating our board members like major donors?

If our board members aren’t giving according to their capacity, it might be because we haven’t made the effort to cultivate a relationship that acknowledges them individually and deepens their connection to our cause. We can thank them more powerfully, with hand-written notes, personal phone calls, and verbal acknowledgements in person or at events. We can use their time more strategically at board meetings, and connect the dots between their service and the impact it’s having on end-users. Taking the time throughout the year to honor the myriad gifts they offer may lead to larger investments because they feel seen and heard and valued as part of the team. And they’ll see first-hand how to cultivate a relationship with a potential donor.

Are we engaging our board members in our work?

If our board members aren’t being compelling ambassadors, helping people in their circles embrace our cause, it might be because we haven’t helped THEM connect to our work. We can

  • ask board members to write their own testimonials about why they care about the organization. They might struggle to articulate it, but it will be an insightful assignment, and they could see why asking others the same question could be a great engagement tactic.
  • have them gather stories of the organization’s impact on end-users, to be shared at board meetings, in publications, in appeal letters or thank-yous. As they collect and share stories from people who have benefited, they’ll gain a deeper understanding of how we make a difference.
  • invite them to participate in an in-the-trenches experience or behind-the-scenes tour with insider information from someone in your field or an elected official who champions your work.
  • host a salon in someone’s living room where board members and other smart people wrestle with a troubling aspect of your issue
  • offer them opportunities to share advice or expertise, or open a door to an in-kind gift of goods or services

Once board members see how rewarding it is to get closer to the mission, they’ll be more willing to invite others to get involved too.

Are we asking for their support in the most compelling way?

If our board members aren’t asking others for support, it might be because they don’t know what a good request looks or feels like. We often ask them all at once to make their annual pledges at a board meeting, depriving them of the joy and satisfaction of a well-planned personal conversation that centers on their alignment with the mission. Make sure each board member has been the subject of a skillful solicitation so he or she will be eager to offer others that same memorable opportunity.

When board members have been engaged in the mission, cultivated and stewarded artfully, and asked powerfully for their own personal gift, they’ll understand what it feels like to be a donor to our organization. As with all of us, they’ll repeat the behavior they’ve experienced. So see to it that what happens to them is intentional, strategic, personal, and respectful. Model the behavior you want them to exhibit and they’ll emulate it with others.





Building a Collaborative Nonprofit Board Team

sept-blog4By David Styers, BoardSource Senior Governance Consultant; manager of program & business development, Presidio Institute, a Presidio Trust Initiative

This post is one in a series written by board leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place in New Orleans on November 9 & 10. We invite you to join us.

How well would your board stack up against a great basketball team, say my hometown’s NBA-champion Golden State Warriors? And I don’t mean in the racking up of points but in terms of how your members work as a team.

For years, you have heard, “You need to diversify your board,” but once accomplished, what does it take to get a group of individuals with a diversity of perspectives, skills, and experiences to work together to advance your mission when they come from… different planets?! Those corporate folks over there are from Mercury. The ones with ties to the government? They’re from Saturn. And the individuals who work within the nonprofit sector hail from Neptune!

I don’t think I’m alone in noticing a disconnect among diverse board members in how to even talk to and understand each another’s “sector dialect.” For example, the perspective of a nonprofit board member in zero-based budgeting may be completely foreign to one from the private sector, and the corporate board member may embrace innovation and risk a little faster than his or her government partner. The result can be more coblaborating than collaborating, which is what your board needs to do.

Based on what Albert Einstein recognized — “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them” — your diverse board will have to learn to behave differently. Not surprising, it seems to come down to that old adage: teamwork. Collaborative boards, just like the Golden State Warriors, are board teams. They take the time to develop trust, manage power dynamics and conflicts, and foster a culture of innovation.

If there is no trust, board members will not be able to successfully address organizational problems or take advantage of opportunities when they occur. Trust is based on understanding, empathy, and shared commitment. Do your board members understand each another’s experiences, work, training, and pressures? Does your board provide your members with the opportunity to develop that understanding? How do your board members build and maintain empathy for each another and commitment to the work? How do they build the resilience to be able to speak frankly without fear or judgment?

You also need to manage your board’s power dynamics and conflict. How do you acknowledge them and understand the history of the board and organization? How well do you bring a lens of racial/ethnic/gender/class equity and inclusion to the work of the board? How do you approach and enable conflict to occur productively?

Finally, to function well as a collaborative team, a board needs to foster a culture of innovation. How do you build a culture of learning and continuous improvement in your board? How do you make yourselves open to new information, ideas, and ways of developing solutions?

By focusing on leading together, your board will provide better governance and ultimately better advancement of your mission. Maybe there should be a BLF championship for best board team! Again, how well would your board fare?

Passing the Nonprofit Governance Torch to GENNEXT

sept-blog3By Kay Irby, director of organizational development, Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. Please consider joining us for this event.

“Help! Our board is lacking in diversity regarding race, skillset, and most of all, age!”

Ten years ago, the Community Foundation of North Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations (LANO) was showered with pleas of this kind from nonprofit leaders from throughout the northwest part of our state. Our response? To help change the situation through a Community Leaders program that has, over the past decade, trained hundreds of young professionals in nonprofit board service and placed these young leaders on boards throughout northwest Louisiana.

We began our efforts by asking our nonprofits why they don’t have younger leaders at the board table. The answers ranged from We know we need them, but they don’t have wealth and access to wealth” and “They are at an age and stage in life where they don’t have time” to “We don’t know any who would be interested.”

We then asked young leaders why they don’t serve on local nonprofit boards. Their answers ranged from “I don’t have the confidence to speak out at meetings” and “I don’t feel educated about board roles and responsibilities” to “I want to serve where I can make a difference, not just enable an organization to check off a diversity box.”

It was clear that we had work to do on both sides of the issue, and that’s what the Community Leaders program does. Through collaborative partnerships committed to change and an innovative model for teaching board roles and responsibilities, we have made headway in changing the composition of our aging boards. Northwest Louisiana’s nonprofits now understand not only why they need to pass the reins of leadership onto the next generation, but, more importantly, are confident that our community’s young leaders are prepared to serve.

Program graduates currently serve on 45 boards in our area, and several have been selected to chair the board. Impressively, 70% of participants continue to make financial contributions to nonprofit organizations three years after completing their training, and 81% continue to serve on a nonprofit board during the same period.

Who holds the governance reins in your community? Paula Hickman, executive director of The Community Foundation of North Louisiana, and I will share our insights in equipping a new generation of leaders for the future of nonprofit board service at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum.  We hope to see you there.

Equip Your New Nonprofit Board Members to Be Effective on Day One

sept-blog2By Cyrus N. (Russ) White, principal, The South Cabin Group LLC; board member, Grand Rapids (MN) Area Community Foundation

This post is one in a series written by individuals who are presenting at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on November 9 & 10, in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

According to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (BoardSource, 2015), average board size has dropped by more than 20 percent — from 19 directors to 15 — since 1994. As nonprofit boards become smaller, the impact of each board member grows. It’s not always easy to find new members, and it takes time and money to onboard new people. This makes it crucial to get new members up to speed as quickly as possible.

Here are resources every new board member should have by the first day:

Governance Documents

These are most commonly compiled into “the board book.” Loose-leaf notebooks are okay, but PDFs are better. Post everything online using a secure portal on your organization’s website, a commercial service like BoardMax, BoardEffect, or BoardDocs.com or simple file-sharing applications like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Evernote.

A Peer Mentor

Have the board chair or governance committee assign each new board member a peer mentor. The best mentors are current board members who have been on the board long enough to know how it operates, but haven’t forgotten what it is to be new.

“Peer mentors have been helpful when we got the pairings right. Those folks who have a mentor who checks in with them, especially during the first six months, helps them get ready for their first board meeting, and sits next to them at board meetings usually get better integrated. Those sound like no-brainers, but you would be amazed at the difference it makes in getting a new member functioning.” — Terry Stone, executive director at CenterLink

Meeting Schedules

Make it easy for new board members to calendar board meetings. Using Google Calendar, Outlook, or Doodle can make it easier on everyone to set meetings and make changes.

Communication Plan

What is the emergency response plan? Who needs to know when the new board member meets someone who shows interest in what the organization is trying to do? Should the board pass volunteer prospects directly to staff or through the CEO? How does a board member send notice that she cannot attend a meeting?

Introduction to the CEO

Every new board member should have an introductory conversation with the CEO prior to joining the board. This can be done individually or as a group of new board members, with the mentor(s) present. The content of the conversation is not as important as the time for new members and the CEO to become more familiar with each other before tending to board business.

Clear Connection to the Nonprofit’s Intended Results

Every new board member should know how he contributes to what the organization intends to accomplish. At the least, this requires the new member to know what the intended results are, and to have a board member job description that describes the responsibilities of each member. Have the mentor and the board chair take time to talk with new members about how their service on the board advances the organization’s intended outcomes.

A final word – easy. Make it easy for your board and leadership staff to update information the board needs. Make it easy for new board members to access the information and put it to use. Make it easy for people to talk with each other and to ask questions. Make it easy for your people to provide exceptional service to the board, to the organization, and to the wider community.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”



How Nonprofit Boards Achieve Transformational Change

sept-blogBy Katha Kissman, BoardSource senior governance consultant

This post is one in a series written by board leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum. We invite you to join us for this event.

When my colleague, Beth Gazley (Indiana University-Bloomington) asked me to co-author a new study and book for the ASAE Foundation that would focus on the journey to good governance, I was intrigued. As a nonprofit practitioner for more than 30 years with a chunk of time as an interim leader, organizational development consultant, and senior governance consultant with BoardSource, I had first-hand experience leading or effecting change as a practitioner. But this would be my first opportunity to marry my practitioner knowledge with evidence-based research in partnership with an academic who specialized in the nonprofit sector.

The result, a book titled Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change, aspired to fill a gap in the current literature on nonprofit governance by combining three elements missing from earlier publications. First, it would focus less on the qualities of high-performing boards and more on the processes that ordinary boards used to reach higher performance. Second, it would emphasize both case studies and the applied tools and activities that are used to achieve higher performance. And third, and most importantly, it would focus on the work of professional and trade associations rather than nonprofits in general. In other words, this book was intended to offer guidance on the activities, tools, and decisions associations use to achieve higher performance — helping associations in particular, but other nonprofits as well, understand how to restructure themselves to perform better.

What was most surprising to me as Beth and I worked on the project was how my training in an entirely different area of my life — that of a clinical hypnotherapist — provided a lens to what were hearing from the more than 100 association leaders we conversed with via one-on-one interviews and emails. And that was all about the energy, fortitude, and commitment it took to understand and then to manage the human dynamic involved with the organizational team (board and staff) to achieve transformational governance change.

In “Getting to Good Governance,” an article that appeared in the July-August 2015 issues of Associations Now, Beth and I wrote: “Change engenders passion and emotion. Disagreements or conflicts may erupt. Paying attention to these dynamics and actively honoring the human element requires commitment, compromise, and work. This takes active management. Recognizing that a board is a team is a first step. These often relative strangers, who come from different backgrounds and geographic locations and who have varied personalities, come together possibly only four to six times a year. Adapting to complex group dynamics while serving the mission, dealing with operational goals, and making important decisions in a limited amount of time requires strong leadership, focus, and heartfelt work on the part of every person involved. Board members who make a commitment at the outset to understand relationships, trust fellow members, and accept a common purpose will find that banked social capital pays off later if and when the board has to change the status quo.”

The research data, the knowledge and resources, the quotes, and the case studies included in Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change provide key insights to those board members who know (or even think) change is needed. My presentation at BLF will hopefully give you the courage to take the first step toward that needed change.

Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change is available through the BoardSource bookstore.


Nonprofit Boardroom Taboos

shhh-excepboardsBy Gary Patterson, principal, Fiscal Doctor

When you were a teenager, do you remember one of your parents saying “Speak to your father [or mother] about that” when you asked an uncomfortable question? Fast forward to today. Based on conversations I’ve had with hundreds of nonprofit board members, many feel they get a similar response in the boardroom when they ask questions without easy answers.

The fact is, most boards have issues they would prefer to glaze over or avoid. In my experience helping both for-profit and non-profit companies with fiscal issues, I’ve never seen one that has all the money, key people, time, or comfort level to pursue all the opportunities and address all the problems that lay before them. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least talk about them.

At last year’s BoardSource Leadership Forum, I asked approximately 50 board leaders to identify the three top issues they felt their boards were avoiding. This year, I’ll be presenting the full list in the session titled “Boardroom Black Holes and Taboos.” In the meantime, I have three key suggestions that can help your board tackle sometimes uncomfortable fiscal issues and your organization attain success — not perfection but success.

  1. Get yourself into business of harnessing opportunities and solving problems through better CAPEX (capital expenditures) logic, which allows you to determine which issues to address with limited resources of people, money, and time. Some of you will be surprised to discover one or more historical activities (possibly galas) that require large amounts of resources actually no longer need to be done.
  2. Prepare for the blurring between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Remember the pain and anguish from those last Form 990 revisions? Attorneys and CPAs are drooling over the next round of Form 990 safeguards. As the disclosure requirements move closer to for-profit proxy levels, what additional levels of corporate governance, enterprise risk management, and cash management will you need?
  3. Set up a planned giving program if you haven’t already done so. Setting politeness aside, your donor base is very likely getting old. If you have looked at the average age of the donors consistently providing most of your funding, you owe it to those donors to help them maintain the mission they care about — and without new passionate donors, the legacy of those who supported your mission in the past may not be able to go forward.

My impression is that nonprofit board members seem to be living in the land of denial more so than their for-profit counterparts. Acknowledging an issue in time to actually solve it is much more effective than ignoring an issue until it becomes a looming catastrophe. Think of an 800-pound gorilla. This monster started as a 100-pound gorilla. Better to tackle it than a beast that nobody can control.

This post is the first in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, being held in New Orleans on November 9 and 10. Please consider joining us for two days of learning. You can learn more about the conference here.

Why Board Engagement in Advocacy is Essential

10basics_blogBy Anne Wallestad, president & CEO, BoardSource

We ask a lot of nonprofit boards of directors. We want them to be deep thinkers about strategy and mission, vigilant providers of oversight, rainmaking fundraisers for our work…the list goes on.

But where some have called for a narrowing of the board’s scope, this week BoardSource did the exact opposite. With the release of a new edition of Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, we have formalized the expectation that advocacy is an essential board responsibility.

This is not something that we take lightly. “Ten Basics” is widely considered to be the definitive resource on nonprofit board roles and responsibilities, and has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide since it was first released in 1988. Expanding the expectations for boards around advocacy in this seminal publication is putting a stake in the ground. We are saying that advocacy is too important to the success of our missions to be considered something “extra” or “nice to do.” It’s absolutely essential to the work of our organizations and to our ability to fulfill our missions and serve our communities.

Here’s why we are taking this important stand:

  • Our missions are too important to sit on the sidelines. If there are policy changes that would advance — or threaten — our ability to do our work, we can’t afford to sit idle as the decision-making happens around us. We need to make sure that policymakers understand the impact of their decisions on our missions and our communities. We need to make sure that they know exactly what our communities have to gain — or lose — from those decisions; it’s our responsibility as protectors of our missions.
  • The need is too great to ignore. While it’s not all about public funding for nonprofit organizations, we cannot be naive about the fact that nonprofit organizations are extremely vulnerable to shifts in public funding priorities. With a third of all revenues received by public charities coming from government sources, there’s no denying that a huge portion of the programs and services that we provide to our communities depend on public support. And when that support shrinks, goes away, or is delayed, the people that we serve suffer. That’s not a fundraising problem for our organizations; that’s a survival problem for our communities’ most vulnerable. We have to make sure that policymakers understand the impact of their decisions before the damage is done.
  • We are the people decision-makers need to hear from. Policy-makers are hungry for information and education from community leaders and constituents, and board members’ motivations and intentions are perceived differently than those of paid lobbyists or even nonprofit staff. When an unpaid volunteer board leader takes that time to speak with them about an issue of community importance, they pay attention.
  • We have more power and influence than we think. There are an estimated 20 million board members in the United States alone, and we represent our communities’ most connected and influential leaders. When the stakes are high, these relationships and networks matter, and we have the power to partner with decision-makers to align priorities with what our communities really need.

Board leaders are a powerful and influential group of leaders committed to the missions and organizations we serve. To leverage the positive potential of our leadership, we have to expand it outside of the boardroom. We have to communicate with passion and clarity about why our work matters to those who are making decisions that will impact our missions.

If we care enough to sit on a board, then we must care enough to stand up for our missions. It’s not one more thing. In some circumstances, it’s the one thing that will really make a difference.

The new edition of “Ten Basics” is a part of a broader effort to get boards engaged as ambassadors and advocates for their missions — an effort BoardSource formalized last year with the launch of the Stand for Your Mission campaign, together with the Alliance for Justice, the Campion Foundation, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the National Council of Nonprofits. Learn more about the Stand for Your Mission campaign and how your board can stand for your mission at www.standforyourmission.org.  


This post was featured in the July 15th issue of NPQ. 

B-Minus! Nonprofit Boards Can Do Better

leading-blog-imageBy Bruce Lesley, BoardSource senior governance consultant

In my community, the public schools dismissed their students for the summer last week, which means that some parents are spending this week contemplating what to do about Junior’s report card. He’s a smart kid and full of promise, so why is he getting B-minuses? And what can be done to help him improve his grades?

Nonprofit board members should be asking themselves the same questions. According to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 2015, nonprofit boards across the country also are earning B-minuses for their performance. Why is this when board members are smart people, just like Junior? Shouldn’t we too expect more of ourselves? I have some thoughts about this, but for now, some tips to help underachieving boards improve their grade.

Light a fire under your governance committee. Maybe it’s inactive and needs a more enthusiastic chair. Maybe you need to repurpose your nominating committee to focus year-round on the board’s engagement. Having this standing committee become more active will force the right conversations about roles and responsibilities, composition, orientation, effectiveness, and the right leadership. One colleague of mine even recommends making your corporate secretary the chief governance officer of the organization and asking him or her to chair this committee.

Repurpose your board meeting agendas so that there is less passive listening to oral reports and more meaningful dialogue on the most important issues. Call it generative work or strategic thinking, when board members are in the same room, the best use of their time is interactive discussion. This is more than just asking questions for clarification; it is when the dialogue generates better understanding among board members and new ideas that will advance mission and strategy. To free up more space for this interactive communication, consider delegating more oversight functions to committees, using consent agenda more aggressively, requiring written reports from your CEO and committees be sent out in advance, preparing visual dashboards for mission impact measures, or even holding a conference call in advance of a board meeting to review fiduciary matters — all so the in-person time can be spent better in interchange.

Close the feedback loop. Board member performance needs to be assessed at all levels, and then the aggregate data reported back to directors. How can a team improve if it doesn’t know how it’s doing? Assessment can be as simple as a 3X5-inch card used at the end of a board meeting for directors to share with the chair what they most liked or disliked about the meeting. Or a board can complete (as BoardSource recommends) a full self-assessment every two to three years and benchmark against its own performance over time. Even peer-to-peer assessments are starting to be used by some exceptional boards. And BoardSource has assessment tools to help with all of the above!

Be positive. Do you truly believe in the potential value-added to mission of an exceptional board? Do you truly believe in the benefits of a constructive partnership between your board and CEO? Maybe all of a board’s successes start with the right attitude, the right values of trust, respect, and interdependence between a board and its CEO. In Forces for Good, the authors state that “most of the (CEOs) we interviewed maintained that their relationship with the board was critical.” Recently some colleagues and I were deliberating about what characteristic most determines how good a board really is. The first answer was a board-centric CEO, one that truly appreciated all the value-added and benefits that a great board can bring to a mission. The second answer was board leaders who realize the importance of doing its job well in support of the mission, its constituents, and its CEO.

All of these considerations emphasize being more intentional about what it means to be an exceptional board and about implementing practices that will improve your board’s performance. There’s a lesson to be learned from those parents intent on helping their children succeed in school. They understand that our children are tomorrow’s leaders. But let’s not forget today. Nonprofit board members are today’s leaders. I encourage us to set equally high expectations of ourselves. Let’s live up to our own promise.



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