Board members, many of them very successful business leaders, often come to the nonprofit board table and fail to bring the very experience that helped them excel in business. They sit passively through board meetings and infrequently ask questions that can often seem, to the executive, like they are passing judgment on decisions already made. This behavior can be quite frustrating for the executive and often leads to resentment toward her board.
A minimal level of governance requires the board to provide appropriate oversight over the organization. However, many boards fail at this because they find oversight boring and engage only when the organization faces a crisis. Providing basic oversight might satisfy fiduciary requirements from a legal perspective but it is simply not enough. What is required of boards to govern effectively is a strategic focus, assisting in connecting the organization to new networks, and providing appropriate feedback to the executive.
Be A Strategic Thought Partner With The Executive
The board is not responsible for managing the organization, and thus should not give task-oriented directions to the executive. Instead, it should consider how programs are aligned with the mission, always asking how and whether the organization is achieving impact and challenging assumptions that were made in developing the strategic plan. In this role, the board should provide perspectives to the executive that can help stretch her thinking about how to address an issue or opportunity.
This orientation will focus the board on partnering with the executive on important issues that need consideration and in making decisions about the direction of the organization. Moreover, board members with specific expertise such as legal, financial and marketing expertise can bring value to the organization by providing advice to the executive in these areas in an effort to ensure the organization’s attention is centered on meeting its mission.
Be An Effective Ambassador For The Organization
Boards and executives often neglect the external role board members can play on behalf of the organization. Board members can be quite effective in speaking on behalf of the mission, and helping to identify new networks and resources. Often board members are recruited solely to fundraise and so many fail because they do not want to do that.
As ambassadors for the organization, board members can support fundraising efforts by introducing the organization to institutional and personal connections that did not exist previously. This may also lead to more partnerships and strategic alliances. Additionally, board members can also leverage media connections to promote the mission or special projects.
Provide Appropriate Feedback to the Executive
Feedback is an essential element of an effective partnership between and the executive and her board. Feedback should be ongoing and should not occur only when the executive’s performance evaluation is due, if the board even conducts one.
Feedback should be focused on setting mutual expectations during the performance setting and evaluation process. The board must be clear about what it expects, and should, with the executive establish a culture of honesty, openness, and transparency regarding expectations. Failing to do so will set up the executive and the board for an unhealthy relationship. Further, this culture of openness and transparency should create conditions for accountability throughout the organization, as each individual at every level knows what is expected of her.
As important as it is to set expectations for the executive, the board must also provide a safe and supportive space for the executive to share her frustrations and reflect on how to deal with organizational challenges. This may require board members to serve as informal coaches to the executive, bringing their experiences and expertise to help address issues.
Boards can no longer stand on the sidelines, showing up for monthly board meetings and approving the minutes, hearing reports, and going home. As competition for scarce resources heats up and the demand on nonprofits to collaborate more and show impact increases, boards must actively participate in leading their organizations. What they bring in terms of experience, expertise, wisdom and insight can be invaluable to executives and the organizations they serve.