Nonprofit executives sometimes find that their boards either underperform or not at all. Some hope the magic bullet will be new board members who bring energy and a new commitment to the organization and are more engaged. The dynamic of a low-functioning board rarely shifts with the addition of new people. What results when nothing shifts is that the executive and board spiral into dysfunction. The executive ignores the board or hides important matters from them, and the board becomes suspicious that the executive is doing something underhanded and they want to micromanage. This hostility can last for a long time and both parties live with it, or the executive leaves on her own or at the urging of the board. Board members fail to be effective stewards of the organizations they serve when executives take their power away.
The executive must determine how to get the best from her board rather than relegating them to the closet, which will hold the organization back. The board can be a powerful partner with the executive in achieving the organization’s mission. There are a few very simple steps an executive can take to ensure a productive relationship with her board and their effectiveness on behalf of the mission.
Be Clear About the Board’s Role and Expectations
The simplest and most important thing an executive can do is to communicate expectations to the board. Not once or twice, but all the time. Having a clear job description for board members certainly creates greater understanding of the expectations, but ongoing communications about what the executive needs from her board gives them greater context for how they can serve the organization.
Board members want to know how they can serve the organization. It’s amazing how many people join boards and are not given information as basic as the board meeting schedule, financial reports, or program plans to provide background on the organization. And if they aren’t given this information, they certainly are not being told how they can serve the organization in their board roles. From providing ongoing training for new board members to creating specific meeting agendas, the executive needs to provide a roadmap to her board so they can be true partners with her and serve the organization effectively.
Treat the Board as a Strategic Partner
Executives often fail to recognize that board members possess a wealth of experiences and perspectives they can draw on to help assess and define the direction of the organization. For some organizations, board meetings can focus on a rehash of tactical information rather than discussion of what it means. To be effective, boards need to work in what the authors of “Governance as Leadership” call a generative space, asking critical questions such as:
- Where is our strategic plan leading us?
- Are we making an impact in the community?
- How will we know we have been successful?
- What can we learn from the data?
Generative thinking requires board members to look at issues in different ways. By engaging them in generative thinking the executive is herself gaining new perspectives on a problem or issue and she and the board can insight into how well the organization is meeting its mission and whether it is focused enough on preparing for the future. Getting the board into a generative space takes some effort and time, which means the executive needs to ask questions that cannot be interpreted as having right or wrong answers, but require board members to be reflective. The executive also needs a strong board chair who can help frame the discussion and lead the board through them.
Empower Board Members to be Active Ambassadors for the Mission
Corporations employ brand ambassadors to promote their products and services. They are usually high profile individuals who embody the corporate entity in demeanor and appearance. Nonprofits can’t afford to hire brand ambassadors and rely on those who are close to the organizations, such as board members. Board members can be powerful connectors and spokespeople for the organization. They are typically involved in networks and engaged in discussions where the executive rarely goes and can introduce the organization to new audiences. Moreover, they can communicate the brand to new audiences, creating new potential sources of revenue and partnerships.
Successful executives who realize they have an untapped treasure in brand ambassadors invest in training and provide assistance to board members so they can reach into their networks and bring people together to learn about their organizations. Board members can adroitly use stories from their own experiences and the people served to make the mission tangible for others. They can perform the ambassadorial role in a variety of ways, such as holding small gatherings in their homes, speaking at their club events, and introducing the executive to key leaders to whom they are connected.
The lesson here is simple. The executive who communicates clearly to her board what they are expected to do, sees them as a key stakeholder and strategic partner in moving the organization forward, and can use her board to be brand ambassadors will have a more productive relationship with the board. Her job satisfaction is likely to be much higher as well.