Perhaps the single most important attribute of an effective board is also its most intangible: an independent sense of itself. This sense of self is the board’s identity as a BODY rather than, for instance, as a loose collection of individuals who each finds ways to support the organization.
As individuals, board members act as supporters of the organization, and often see themselves as supporters of the executive director as well. They speak to the community on the organization’s behalf: asking for donations, volunteer time, and support. In contrast, when acting as a BODY, the board speaks to the organization on the behalf of its constituency. And while individual board members are cheerleaders, the board as a whole is the sharp-eyed team owner: looking at both the season record and the bottom line, and evaluating the head coach.
Here are five easy ways to strengthen the board’s sense of self:
1. Hold regular executive sessions. Some boards automatically put executive sessions on, say, four meeting agendas per year. Discussions without any staff present allow board members to float ideas and tentative concerns. Making the sessions a standard quarterly event keeps executive directors from being alarmed.
2. Have an annual social event for board members only — no staff, no executive director. A take-out dinner at a board member’s home, drinks after a board meeting, or other non-required social events go a long way towards helping board members see themselves as an entity outside the boardroom.
3. Board Briefings: 7 x 7 Board Briefings. Individual board members are seldom given a chance to shine EXCEPT as helpers. No wonder it’s hard to recognize how Joe’s and Carla’s professional knowledge and personal backgrounds can inform strategy and drive accountability to the community, when we know only about Joe’s fundraising work or Carla’s committee work. Try having a Board Briefing at every meeting:
The board chair (or the Governance Committee if you have one) can schedule a 7-minute briefing at each meeting by a board member. Seven minutes — no more! Then 7 minutes of questions and answers (total time: 15 minutes). Be strict about time! Examples:
A person in marketing for a bank can present on two marketing concepts board members should understand
A former or current client can relate her personal experience as a client
A pharmaceuticals VP can explain to her AIDS board what are the drivers in AIDS drugs development
A social worker can talk about the different schools of thought in child development, to her board of a learning center
4. Annually conduct an evaluation of the executive director. One venture capitalist we know says about the for-profit boards she sits on: “The main question in my mind at every meeting is simply: should we fire the CEO or not?” In contrast, a frequent complaint of nonprofit executives is that THEY have to prod the board into completing an evaluation. Whatever the method, just be sure you do it.
5. The executive director should take care to step back at board meetings and not dominate discussions. If you are the board chair, work with your executive to put reports in writing and to take staff reports off the agenda unless there is a decision to be made at the meeting related to the report. If you are a board member, send this article to your executive and board chair and have a brief chat before or after the next meetings. If you are the executive: be quiet more often! Restrain your instinctive reaction to explain everything every time, and instead try seeing your job as “leading the board to lead.”
In short: don’t just be a bunch of really great board members. Be a board that sees itself as more than just 1 + 1 + . . . . When a board has a sense of itself as a body, it will take the time to be sure that it has the information and relationships to act as a body, and be more prepared for holding the organization accountable to its constituencies.
Should the Board Have Executive Sessions?
Working Board Vs. Governing Board
Evaluation of the Executive Director
Critical Path for the Board
Special thanks to Board Cafe Editorial Committee member Mike Allison for his thinking on this subject.