Building Better Boards

Build better boards by choosing better “construction” materials.

Boards should not be assembled to include those who simply acquiesce to a friend’s request to join in service, nor should they be put together without consideration for the proper combination of “materials.” The key materials are energy/enthusiasm, experience, knowledge/wisdom and influence.

In my 30-plus years of nonprofit experiences—including chambers of commerce, higher education, arts organizations, alumni organizations and more—it has become abundantly clear that the materials described above also represent phases of a board’s development. Don’t let your board develop in the four steps…always have a mix.  Putting together an effective board requires having a combination of those traits.

The newcomers, full of energy and enthusiasm, learn the ropes while serving; the experienced board members understand the organization and how to get things done in committee and board structures; the knowledgeable and wise complete assignments with greater skill and understanding regarding the broad- and long-term views; and, those with influence can place calls to make things happen. This forms a cycle of growth and rejuvenation; each group serves as a role model to the members who are developing, and those developing energize those who “have been around.”  It is a wonderful way to build a board, but it doesn’t happen by accident. Not attending to the composition of the board and what each brings “to the table,” is fraught with peril and frustration.

Board members need to understand the business operations of the organizations. I served on a chamber board where a construction expert chastised the staff for not being tough enough to endure disrespectful community partners.  The mindset of a commercial construction company is much more “bottom line, brass tacks” than the relationship orientation of a chamber.  I felt like saying to the construction guy, “OK, since you want to apply construction principles to chamber work, let’s try applying chamber operations to your next project.  For one, you don’t get to use whatever materials for the job that you want; you must use whatever is donated, and accept at whatever time the materials arrive.  You want to use trained labor in each area of the construction process?  No longer.  Now you must use volunteers who have no previous experience, and they will be available at their times, not yours.  But you still need to have the project done on time, under budget and subject to the same oversight and permitting as before.”

I believe that it is more important to have board members who understand what they know and admit to what they don’t. It is neither fair nor appropriate for a member to say to the nonprofit’s exec, “You need to make the decision because you are here every day.  You know how things operate,” but when the exec makes operational decisions that the member doesn’t like, then says, “Well, how we do it in our doctor’s office is like this so it should work for the chamber.”  A properly vetted and assembled board provides oversight, but also understands the limits of their own knowledge.  To address this,  a good board member will learn more about the nonprofit’s operational aspects by involvement and immersion, and will also empower the exec—with accountability, of course—while helping the exec develop his or her own skills based on translatable best practices that can be gleaned from other businesses or organizations.

Build a better board by “shopping” for the right materials: energy/enthusiasm, experience, knowledge/wisdom and influence.  Continue to grow each member in that continuum as a formal process; empower the exec; and, hold accountable those with responsibilities to get things done (including staff members, board members and volunteers), as appropriate to do so.

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