While we live in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) times, nonprofit boards have changed only modestly. The findings in Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices show some progress over the past 20 years. We have gotten smarter about boards, but only incrementally.
Reading between the numbers, boards could be so much better and add so much more to their organizations. I can’t help but believe that board members need to take greater ownership of their governance structure, practices, and behaviors. But, I also believe that CEOs bear responsibility for some gaps in board performance.
On average, a CEO spends 17.8 hours per month on board work. While I’m not sure if this is good or bad news, I do know that a CEO’s time is a precious commodity. What follows is some little data that highlight big ideas for CEOs to gain greater value from their boards.
Do you have the dream team board?
If you’re one of the 73 percent of CEOs who believe you have the right people on your board, congratulations! My experience, however, suggests that we should take this number with a grain of salt. Many CEOs and boards are still in search of the dream team board. One of the obstacles may be a lack of agreement between CEOs and boards on the desired team players. Passion for the mission tops the list for both, but board chairs rank professional skills second while CEOs rank community connections second.
What might explain the difference? CEOs often have a large Rolodex of contacts with knowledge and expertise in a wide range of relevant areas. But, they can’t be everywhere and know everyone. CEOs want and need board members to serve as ambassadors, to extend the organization’s reach, to speak out and up as dedicated volunteers in places and ways that the CEO — who, while a subject matters expert, is also a paid professional with a vested interest in the outcome — cannot. There is no substitute for well-connected, influential board members with different networks and platforms.
Consider This: When the full board and CEO of a social service agency brainstormed the dream team board together, they realized that they had connections to some ideal candidates who might have otherwise been presumed to be out of reach for the organization.
How do your board members know what the work of your board is?
Eighty-one percent of nonprofits have a written job description for board members, 66 percent of CEOs report that their orientation process is effective, and 65 percent of CEOs believe their board members are well informed of their governance responsibilities. While written statements of board roles and board members expectations, board manuals and formal orientation sessions are important starting points, they are only the first steps toward meaningful board engagement.
As Dick Chait [co-author of Governance as Leadership] has observed, “Governance is a rare and unnatural act.” Board education requires a genuine commitment to continuous learning (about the organization and about governance), strategic information sharing, and mutual feedback. Best practices for board development range from a simple, on-the-spot board meeting evaluation to a more comprehensive board assessment. Fifty-one percent of boards have undertaken a formal, written board assessment within the past three years, and their performance was rated higher by CEOs than boards that had not.
Consider This: The board of a professional association invites the incoming board members to the last meeting of the outgoing board members. As part of the onboarding ritual, together they review the results of the annual board assessment and identify board priorities for the coming year.
Do you engage the board in what matters most?
I hear, repeatedly, from CEOs that they want the board to see the big picture, own the mission, and act with a “we mentality” about the organization. Yet, many board meetings do little to encourage this. Seventy-five percent of CEOs report that half of their board meetings are spent on staff and committee reports. Only 35 percent of CEOs report that meetings focus on strategy and policy, rather than operational issues.
This Leading with Intent data — along with observations over the years — suggests that board members may not have enough input and interaction with the organization’s strategic direction, priorities, and issues — all of which the CEO and professional staff deal with on a daily basis. But, for many CEOs, sharing strategic leadership with the board is daunting. Only 42 percent of CEOs strongly agree that they involve the board in leading the organization. A college president — who felt he had a great board composed of smart, dedicated, generous people — confessed, “I struggle with the knowledge that I don’t bring the really difficult strategic challenges to board meetings.”
Consider This: At the end of the meeting, a board member described a disappointed exchange he had with the health care organization’s staff. The CEO acknowledged the problem and promised to bring the issue back to the board. At the next meeting, the board examined the results of a customer satisfaction survey, and the CEO was able to glean valuable lessons learned from board members who had worked through this issue in corporate, government, and direct service backgrounds.
Do you have the board you deserve?
As a CEO, if you have a great board, it is not by accident. I suspect you’ve spent a lot of time building relationships with your board members, asking them not for their support and approval, but listening and learning about their interests and concerns. If your board doesn’t get good grades, you may be — unintentionally or otherwise — contributing to the problem. Perhaps you flood them with 120-page board meeting PDFs in the interest of transparency. Maybe you keep your distance out of respect for their very busy professional and personal lives. Take a few of those 17.8 hours per month and dedicate them to learning what your board members think about what’s working well and what could be better. See what happens when you take this one small, intentional step toward a better board.