Making working boards work

It takes a lot of people-power to accomplish the work of our nonprofits. Staff, volunteers, and, for the tiniest of organizations, their “working boards.”

You’ve probably heard that expression. I hear it frequently: “we’re a working board.”

Guess what? All boards have work.

In virtually all of our charitable nonprofits, our board members are likely to wear two hats:

  1. the hat covering their fiduciary and governing responsibilities.
  2. the hat covering their volunteer, or staff-like tasks.

What is the work of the board?

Governing responsibilities are about setting direction and overseeing the well-being of the organization and its mission. These can’t be delegated away.  For example,

  • approving the big vision
  • ensuring guiding strategy
  • setting and monitoring the policies that guide organizational work
  • defining the values everyone lives by
  • defining the metrics that measure success
  • asking the critical questions about impact, community changes, what’s coming down the pike
  • making tough decisions about priorities and resource allocations
  • organizing the board, from creating the standard of board excellence to determining the processes that bring people on board, train them, set meeting and decision standards and more.
  • Choosing and providing feedback to the CEO or leadership staff team, acting as their strategic partner and letting go of them when they are no longer serving the organization’s needs
  • overseeing required public reporting and accountability.

What are some staff or staff-like tasks? These are the things that if your organization had the money, you would likely pay a professional person to do. Tasks like:

  • raising revenues and caring for donors
  • running all aspects of events
  • caring for facilities
  • running programs
  • keeping the books, paying the bills
  • marketing, communications and promotion
  • media relations
  • managing the staff
  • recruiting volunteers

So what do people mean when they say they have a working board?

Organizations say they have a working board when they have no or few staff and board members are usually the folks filling most of the staff functions. Or they may have staff but the board keeps some particular function for itself.

Board meetings get all muddled up by combining the work of governing and the work of managing (or staff work).

Staff work also gets neglected or done ineptly when no one person (or team) is in charge but everyone — the board — is in charge.

Here are a few suggestions to enable better work from your working boards.

These are some suggestions to get you started.

1.Divide up your board meetings. Be clear about what items on the agenda are governing work and what items on the agenda are really a staff meeting. You might even want to set them up as two meetings. One that’s the board following all of its bylaws procedures. When that adjourns, then open the staff meeting. You might not even need all the board members present for that if there is no work that involved them.

2. Be clearer than ever as to the goals that have to be accomplished, who is responsible for accomplishing them, and what authority the board has delegated to those people. This can save countless hours  having the full board arguing over the cost of an event ticket or venue.

3. Recruit volunteers for staff work beyond the board. I say this often, most volunteers would rather not be on the board.  I happen to find the work of governing very fulfilling. But those folks who like running a community meal site, or teaching a workshop, or working with their hands don’t often want to be on the board.

4. Recruit board members as managers of critical functions in the organization. Give them something they are accountable to the board for achieving. That might be raising the budget dollars, ensuring a years worth of membership programs are carried out, or serving as stewardship manager for your properties. They don’t do this alone.. they can recruit volunteers to be on their committees. But every board member should have a job and outcome that he or she is responsible for achieving.

What else have you found to work well in your working boards? Love to hear from you.

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