Thanks to the National Council of Nonprofits for sharing this great article in their Nonprofit Knowledge Matters newsletter.
Keeping Your Board in Good Shape
Tips for top performance
Conditioning: Just as you wouldn’t attempt a 26-mile marathon without training or knowing the pathway, we shouldn’t expect (or want) board members to immediately hit the ground running in any direction. Instead, warm them up with a solid board orientation that introduces them to what they can expect – and what is expected of them. As reported in BoardSource’s Nonprofit Governance Index 2012, there was a high correlation between boards that went through a structured board orientation process and those that the chief executives described as “very well informed” or “well informed.” We’ve posted tips and tools for board orientations on the Council of Nonprofits’ website along with other resources for developing strong boards. State Associations of nonprofits are terrific resources for board training, and many provide facilitators for board retreats. Also, the Principles and Practices and Standards for Excellence® promoted by State Associations are tailored for board members, and many include companion workbooks that serve as easy road maps to inform boards about “best practices.”
Teammates: Board service is a team sport, with different individuals bringing different skills and perspectives to produce a talented team of champions for the mission. Many boards focus more on the nominating process, overlooking their existing board members, who – just like athletes at the college and professional levels – still need training to stay in shape and learn new moves. While we know that in team sports we need players with diverse skills – passing, catching, scoring, defending – the Nonprofit Governance Index 2012 found that nonprofit board teams are still a long way away from actually increasing their diversity. The report documents “the almost non-existent progress in recruiting racial and ethnic minorities on boards over an 18-year period.” Read why diversity on boards is so important for making your organization stronger.
Conserve energy: College and professional teams don’t play every weekend year-round; it would be too grueling. Similarly, while nonprofit boards have year-round responsibilities, holding too many meetings or serving too many years on a board can sap the energy out of board members. According to the BoardSource report, the average time a volunteer serves on a board is approximately six years (two consecutive three years terms). But 27% of boards reported no term limits. The report also found that, on average, nonprofit boards have 5.5 committees. Consider how many committees each board member serves on. Make sure that your board and committee meetings don’t wear out your volunteers! Are board meetings scheduled too frequently? Are the meetings too long? As reported in the Nonprofit Governance Index 2012, the most common schedule is for a board to meet between 7 to 12 times per year, for less than two hours, or four to six times per year, for two to five hours at a time (!). How much time does your board spend just hearing committee reports? The survey found that on average boards spend 35% of their meeting time receiving committee or staff reports. That means that a board could spend more than a third of its meeting time on operational issues rather than policy and strategic issues. One tool for saving energy and keeping board meetings focused is a consent agenda. Of the nonprofit boards participating in the BoardSource 2012 survey, 60% reported using a consent agenda. We’ve posted other tips for more effective meetings in our newsletter archives.
Mix it up: Squats one day, push-ups the next. Whatever your training regimen, chances are you don’t do the same thing every time you work out. Mixing up your work-out strengthens different muscle groups and develops your body in new, more powerful ways. But the BoardSource report reveals that most boards don’t mix things up. The vast majority routinely focus only on internal matters. Of the 10 most common committees (remember, the average board has only 5.5 committees), eight are entirely internal in nature (e.g., audit, finance, governance, finance), and only two of the top 10 are arguably external: program and marketing/communications/public relations (23% board had them – tied for lowest among the top 10). Amazingly, while virtually every nonprofit was established to make a difference externally in the community, only 13% boards reported having a public policy committee (thus falling far below the top 10 list). Learn more about why and how to create a public policy committee.
Coaching matters: Everybody appreciates a little coaching. Who coaches a board? Consultants do, but not every board can afford to hire outside assistance to keep it on track. Instead, boards can engage in the process of self-assessment using template tools, such as the Board Self-Assessment Questionnaire developed by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, to guide their discussion and exploration about how they can improve their own effectiveness. Boards that strive for continuous improvement are more likely to keep board members engaged, yet 35% of the nonprofits surveyed reported that their board had never conducted a self-assessment, or that they couldn’t recall when it had, if ever. If your board could use a little coaching regarding the full scope of their responsibilities, consider suggesting a self-assessment and share some tools with your board to start the process.
Fuel for the race: Does your nonprofit have a high-performing fundraising board? Despite increasingly scarce resources for most charitable nonprofits, executive directors “rank fundraising as the weakest area of board performance,” with 45% giving a failing grade on their board’s report card. Moreover, 40% of “CEOs indicate that board members are reluctant to take on fundraising responsibilities.” This is despite the fact that 75% of executive directors say that when board members are recruited, they are clearly informed that they will be expected to engage in fundraising. Why the mismatch? And what can we do about it? Ideas for helping reluctant board members engage in fundraising abound. But what really works? Email us your favorite engagement strategy for boards related to fundraising, and we’ll feature it in a future newsletter.