Case Studies: Board Development

Question: Which best describes The House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts?

1. A 375-year-old architectural treasure, infused with New England maritime and literary history in an exquisite seaside location recently recognized with National Historic Landmark District status.
2. A century-old settlement association now serving as a preschool, afterschool, and summer camp for local children.
3. Both of the above.

The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association

Two missions in one

The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association is unusual among historic sites. In founding The Gables, community philanthropist and preservationist Caroline Emmerton wove together two threads of the early 20th century: the revival of our colonial heritage and a progressive social mission to improve the lot of the nation’s newest immigrants. In Ms. Emmerton’s vision, the opening to tourists of the historic house that inspired literary great Nathaniel Hawthorne would “yield a little revenue towards the running expenses [of the settlement] besides giving the social workers a home and affording room for extra classes.” (1908)

Almost one hundred years later, The Gables is still (in the words of a former trustee) “blessed and challenged” by this unique vision. Should The Gables’ re-vision its dual mission for the 21st century? What is a contemporary settlement association? What business model will sustain financial vibrancy? How will The Gables respond to the increasing competition for today’s tourists who seek high energy, high touch personal experiences? Big questions command visionary, courageous and laser-sharp leadership.

An energy crisis

Similar to historic sites nationwide after 9/11, The Gables had experienced slowly eroding admissions and a resulting drop in revenues. Governing during times of stress takes a toll on any board and this one was no exception. More from duty than desire, trustees reluctantly stepped into open-ended officer slots rather than cycle off the board. Recruitment challenges left little “bench” for replacement trustees or committee chairs. Disagreements over mission priorities led some long-time members to leave the board. Non-essential staff positions were trimmed. While there was the desire to pump up charitable giving, it was difficult to divert essential funds from the core to invest in new fundraising capacity – whether staff- or volunteer-led.

The challenge to Cause & Effect? Help this board re-invent itself, rediscover its value to The Gables and chart a new course for the future.

Starting Change by Sharing the Diagnosis

Despite these challenges, there was much to build on. Trustees loved The Gables and were resolved to ensure high standards for preservation of the site, its collections and the quality of its child care programs. Commitment was high for ending deficit spending that would eventually erode the endowment. While admissions were below historic levels, The Gables was a long way from suffering the dramatic falloff that some of its sister organizations had experienced.

Gayle began her work with the trustees by inviting them to diagnose their own performance. Not only is this an important governance practice, but the self-awareness that comes from self-diagnosis builds stronger ownership for the changes ahead.

For self-assessment to be effective, comparisons need to be made against best practices. Gayle’s highly readable book,How are We Doing? a 1 hour guide to evaluating the performance of your nonprofit board made this benchmarking easy to do. Trustees read the book then completed an online survey compiled from the question at the end of each chapter. Gayle also interviewed a number of current and departing trustees for more background on the board’s functioning.

When trustees reviewed their cumulative responses to the survey, they quickly saw areas of strength, areas for improvement and areas of disagreement. Together, Gayle and the Board drafted an action plan that would lead to significant improvements. With high hopes, a number of trustees agreed to serve as Gayle’s partners in change management by serving on a reconstituted governance committee.

Steady work leading to dramatic change.

Meeting monthly, the Governance Committee set to work on overhauling the board recruitment and nominations process and restructuring how the board worked together. Over the next year and a half, they:

  • Revised board and committee job descriptions, expectations and work plans.
  • Assessed the skills and talents of each current trustee, assessed missing board skills and created ideal candidate profiles for new recruits.
  • Developed a rigorous new recruitment and nominations process and actively interviewed dozens of potential new members.
  • Introduced a new format for board meetings, with less routine reporting and more time for substantive discussion.
  • Began re-educating themselves about their founding story and on contemporary issues facing cultural and educational institutions by seeking experts both within and without the organization.
  • Overhauled the bylaws to reflect their higher expectations and jettisoned obsolete provisions.
  • Revised committee structures and objectives.
  • Designed a “dashboard” report which could help simplify yet strengthen the board’s focus on critical indicators.
The next wellness check up

Today, the board has evolved from that original weary dozen to 17 enthusiastic and optimistic trustees filled with renewed energy and a shared commitment to greatness for The Gables. It has developed a plan for orderly transition of the longest-serving officers and trustees. A board-staff team is working on a new strategic vision.

Today’s board is infused with an exciting sense of boundless possibility ahead. Throughout Gayle’s work with these trustees, she was always impressed by their passion for the mission, their hunger for excellence, and their receptive and collegial spirit. We are always sad to separate from a client for whom we have great respect and where we count many new friends. Yet we leave with optimism and anticipation for great transitions ahead.

    Services provided:

  • Board assessment
  • Board development
  • Leadership coaching
  • Book purchases