The Board Builds Its Sense of Self: Body-Building for Boards

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.

Related articles:

Special thanks to Board Cafe Editorial Committee member Mike Allison for his thinking on this subject.

Comments (3)

  • I strongly disagree with perpetuating board/staff hierarchy which this article connotes to me. The healthiest organizations I know are the ones in which the board and staff see themselves as partners in accomplishing the mission of the organization. When a board's "sense of self" is separate from the staff, when they don't see themselves as colleagues in pursuit of the same ends, when the relationships among the organization's leaders are not strong, way too much time is wasted and good people are driven from non profit work. I don't think a non profit is a government requiring a "balance of powers."
    I'd like to refer readers to an excellent article from the Summer 2007 issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly, "Engagement Governance for System-Wide Decision Making" which promotes a different point of view.
    MK Wegmann
    President and CEO
    National Performance Network

    Nov 04, 2008
  • While I feel there should be a partnership between the Board and Staff, I do not feel this alone will lead Board Members becoming more engaged in the mission of the organizations they serve. The only way for Board Members to become more engaged in serving the mission of the organization is to allow Board Members to set the agenda and tone for their Board Meeting and Board functions; i.e. get out of the way and let them be in charge. When the Board feels empowered they will seek levels of responsibility in relationship to what Carver suggests; Governance. When Board Members govern, they are able to focus on the 30,000 foot goals and set the future direction of the organization and leave the day to day operations of the one staff member they employ, the CEO.
    Robert G. Smith
    President and CEO
    Goodwill Industries of Lower SC

    Nov 05, 2008
  • Anonymous

    I really like the suggestions presented here. I am president of a board that just quietly listens to reports from the CEO and committees and votes yes to their recommendations without question or comment. They are wonderful people, are respectful to each other, and care deeply about the organization and its mission, but they seldom speak up. I think these ideas of regular executive meetings where they can voice ideas, questions or concerns with worrying about the CEO feeling criticized; 7x7 board briefings where we can learn about each other and our talents; and getting together in person and talking over the evaluation of the CEO, instead of just filling out a questionaire, might help a lot to create an atmosphere where talking is not only encouraged, but safe and fun. Then real business can begin to happen. We have a great CEO but mostly she does all the work.....its time the board stepped up to do their part. Anonymous

    Jun 10, 2011

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