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:
- the hat covering their fiduciary and governing responsibilities.
- 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.
I am eager to see the end of the belief that there is one set of “best practices” when it comes to boards and governance. Let’s finally agree that governance is extremely complex as researchers are recognizing “the importance of context to our understanding of governance and the work of boards.”
Have you heard of the 3 Ps of nonprofit boards?
Neither had I until last week.
I was discussing ideas for an upcoming board retreat with the chair of the board development committee. In describing the ideal board member, this trustee mentioned the 3Ps, something he learned from a colleague in years past.
When I asked him to explain, he described the Ps as follows:
• Prisoners are the reluctant board members. They do not come voluntarily to their positions. Most likely they were assigned to serve on the board by the boss at their company. This term might also describe officers coerced into serving.
• Passengers are good enough board members, but they are waiting to be told what to do in order to do more than just attend board meetings. They are usually in the majority on most boards.
• Partners are those board members who voluntarily and enthusiastically take leadership. They act as partners with the CEO and other board members in building the future of the organization they serve.
I told this clearly partner board member this was a really intriguing concept I hadn’t discovered before. With his permission, I wanted to share this with you.
Prisoners, Passengers, Partners, Protestors.
After I got off the phone, I went looking online for the reference.
I found these terms used in the training world where, instead of 3, there are 4Ps – protestors, prisoners, passengers and participants.
Participants are the partners that my client described. Read more
In a room filled with governance gurus and nonprofit capacity builders, the overwhelming consensus was that our current board model is stuck in the industrial past. We need to constantly evolve – or totally transform — governance structures to be smart, nimble, responsive and adaptive to the new world order of uncertainty and rapid change.
Too often, I meet boards that are extremely reluctant to quantify the community impact they’d like to make, fearing they’ll fall short of the goal. When asked to set a goal for how they’ll enhance their community, too many boards hedge. It’s tempting to think about your organization only in terms of what you are
Decisions answer a particular question confronting us here and now. They often lack application to any future questions that might arise.
Policies, on the other hand, provide a framework for making decisions that can be applied to future questions. Not only are they key to sound board decisions, but policies allow boards to more effectively delegate authority to others.
BUY IT FOR YOUR BOARD TODAY! Thank you!.
Gayle’s newest book was just released by Emerson and Church, publishers of Contributions Magazine.
It’s an updated version of How are we Doing? her one-hour read to help your board start a conversation about its own effectiveness.
We’ll be sharing excerpts from chapters in future blogs. Meanwhile, here’s what the publisher said:
A high-performing, diligent board that takes its responsibilities seriously is the Holy Grail of nearly every nonprofit in the U.S. Such a board means more money raised, swifter policy decisions, steady governance, and less ibuprofen for the CEO.
But can you realistically get there from here? Can you put your average or good board on the road to greatness? Indeed you can, says Gayle Gifford in How to Make Your Board Dramatically More Effective, Starting Today. And you’re closer than you think.
Gifford’s approach is ingenious. She doesn’t lecture, doesn’t scold, doesn’t harangue. Instead she challenges your board to transform itself by answering a series of trenchant questions. Here’s a sampling:
- How well do we know our community’s needs?
- Do we know if our programs are having an impact?
- Have we given our CEO the necessary support?
- Have we decided the board’s role in fundraising?
- Do our committees improve the functioning of our board?
- Does our board govern and resist the temptation to manage?
- Is our relationship with staff what it should be?