Building a better board

Tanya Howe Johnson
Tanya Howe Johnson

Tanya Howe Johnson

Nonprofits give much attention to selecting, training and evaluating staff leadership.

Why don’t most nonprofit organizations put the same effort into recruiting, training and evaluating their governing board, the people most critical to the organization’s success?

Consider how you identify great candidates for the chief staff officer position. Shouldn’t a nonprofit put the same diligent process in place for those who will lead the organization from the volunteer side?

  • A written job description
  • A determination of the education, qualifications and experience that are needed
  • An application process
  • Personal interviews
  • Reference and background checks

Once a CEO is hired, organizations follow up with orientation and on-going training. They set performance goals and expectations, and they conduct regular performance evaluations.

These activities are just as important for ensuring effective board leadership.

If these are good practices, why don’t many nonprofits follow them?

Lack of time or resources

Although recruiting quality board members should be a strategic, on-going process, many boards fail to put adequate time and resources into replacing themselves.

But boards can delegate much of this work through a board leadership development committee.

This group goes well beyond the traditional nominating committee by assuming on-going responsibility for identifying the governance needs of the organization, identifying board prospects, creating pathways to leadership, vetting candidates, training and orientation, and assisting with the board-evaluation process.

Barrier perception

Some nonprofits don’t put a strategic board-recruitment and training process in place because they are afraid these requirements will create barriers to leadership service.

After all, we expect a lot of work from board members – and for no pay. In fact, we ask them to “pay” for this job via a charitable gift. We’ve often been thrilled just to find people who will say “yes.”

So how do we make board service something that people enjoy and aspire to enough that they will value the process and adhere to the standards we set?

First, we must create a culture where service on our board is seen as an honor, achievement and personal-growth activity.

Nonprofits should create an institutionalized process for thanking and recognizing board members for their contributions. This process should include recognition within the nonprofit organization, and recognition within the board member’s sphere of influence – with his or her employer and in the community.

Second, we must make board work personally rewarding and fun.

Board members who are mission-passionate, working efficiently and making significant governance contributions are likely to find the experience enjoyable and energizing.

In contrast, too much board work ends up as tedious and boring. It is critical to invest in quality board-governance training as part of your board orientation, and to keep regular governance training an on-going priority.

An efficient and energized board:

  • Spends the bulk of discussion on critical issues and planning for the future.
  • Agrees on what constitutes “board work” and doesn’t let committee or staff work find its way to the agenda.
  • Uses tools like a consent agenda and an organizational “dashboard.”
  • Agrees on what decisions need to be made before beginning discussion and uses a discussion guide for key issues.
  • Requires monitoring and information reports to be submitted in advance and focuses discussion on addressing questions.
  • Limits financial discussions to the key information needed to make good financial oversight decisions.
  • Evaluates its own individual and collective performance.

Takes responsibility for setting its future agendas.

Tanya Howe Johnson, CAE, is president and CEO of the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning. As a management consultant, she has worked with more than 100 associations and nonprofits on fundraising, leadership training and strategic planning.

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