Facilitating High Performing Boards

Facilitating a High Performing Board

Recently, I have been working on several different projects that involve nonprofit board development issues ranging from staffing a board, to recruiting board members, and improving the effectiveness of boards.  My recent work has led me to filter my experience through a review of the literature on the characteristics of an effective boards and  strengthening  nonprofit board performance.  So this post is one more installment of my occasional series on nonprofit board development.

As I have written previously, a functional board is comprised of members capable of serving four functions that include 1) governance, 2) capacity support, 3) content expertise, and 4) resource development.  This is a critical framework to understand as it serves as the foundation of a functional board. However, a high performing board requires a different level of operating. High performing boards are based on “the highest and best use” of the talents and skills of board members.  Most nonprofit organizations seek to recruit board members who are talented individuals who are often business leaders, critical thinkers, and community activists. Unfortunately, more often than we would like to admit, the use of such  talented board members is limited to review of policies and procedures, looking over budget reports for accuracy and assisting in fundraising events. While such board activities might define some of the duties of a functional board, a high performing board is defined by engagement in ongoing strategic thinking and strategic action. Reviewing meeting minutes, agency financial reports, and blessing changes in HR policy are necessary duties of a Board but if the balance of board meetings is consumed with such pedestrian administrative tasks, then the “highest and best use of board talent “is likely missed.

A classic Harvard Business Review article published over a decade ago, suggests that high functioning boards, discover, focus and organize around “what matters” (External Link).  According to this article, what matters is “harnessing the collective efforts of accomplished individuals to advance the institution’s mission and long-term welfare.”  It goes on further to suggest that the board’s contribution is meant to be strategic, “the joint product of talented people brought together to apply their knowledge and expertise to the major challenges (and I would add, opportunities) facing the institution.”  So, if this is the description of a high performing board, what does it take to create such a board?  From my experience and a review of the literature, I would suggest five starting points.

1.  Assess where you are and define where you want to be.  The first task of developing a high performing board is to figure out where are the gaps in performance.  A Google Search will unearth several board self-assessment tools that range from overly simplistic to overly complicated. Such tools might be useful to help a board think about its governance functions, member commitments, or help identify “holes” in a board’s operating structure.  Such a self-assessment can be a good place to benchmark the strengths of your board operation but many of these assessments do not have a strong strategic intent.  An alternative assessment would be to benchmark practices against the variables presented in the Grant Thornton 2012 National Board Governance Survey for Not-for-Profit Organizations (External Link).  In my opinion, this survey offers a timely and more strategic perspective on board operations. A third approach to assessment is to shift away from a narrow assessment of the board and conduct a larger capacity assessment.  I have written elsewhere about capacity assessments and in that article I linked to a useful assessment spreadsheet (External Link).  A capacity assessment would help the board not only reflect in its strengths and opportunities but would also be useful in discovering the “what matters.”  Whichever route you take, knowing where the board is now will help identify the performance gap related to where you want to be.

2.  Build the Board’s Skills:  I have argued before that board development starts at a board orientation but continues as an ongoing process of raising the skills and competencies of board members.  The reality is that board members become effective as they engage their heads, hearts and hands in the work of the organization.  To me, this calls for a meaningful development agenda that includes a) ongoing board training on topics related to governance and strategy, b) opportunities for boards to get their “hands dirty” in the work of the organization, and c) learning about the larger service context in which the nonprofit agency works.  Building board skills is a strategic and long-term process that is not segregated into an annual or semi-annual training event.  Ideally, participating in a strategic agenda for board skills building should be built into board practices and be built into the expectations of board service.

3.  Engage Strategically:  A simple yet useful exercise to help gauge the strategy of a board is to do a quick content analysis of two sources.  First, examine the pre-meeting packets sent out to board members for the last three or four months and sort the contents into the two piles of administrative and strategic.  Second, review the meeting minutes for the same time period and highlight everything that is strategic in yellow.  The balance of the piles and the presence or absence of yellow highlights will give a board a good indication of how much of the board’s time is spent in administrative review and how much of the time is spent engaged in strategy.  The second part of the exercise is to ask the question, how much of the historic content was actually dependent upon face to face meeting?  For example, could board members review and approve fiscal statements and other administrative approvals after a simple review of emailed documents?  The answer is likely to be yes.  I am not suggesting that boards should conduct business by email rather I wanted to create a perspective of time.  If board members can read and approve by reviewing email attachments, then the time allotted at board meetings should be proportional. Simple administrative review should be done in advance of meetings and, when there are no concerns about the subject matter, such tasks should take relatively little time at a board meeting. Unfortunately, too many boards are conditioned to process the nuances of organizational administration, mistaking such administrative processing for strategy.  Board meetings need to be oriented around strategy and board members engaged in the work of solving big challenges of the agency and thinking strategically two and three years out.   Performance of boards would improve dramatically if administrative review were limited to a tightly narrated quarter or a third of a total board meeting time.

4.  Measure Performance:  Another starting point for improving board effectiveness is to measure performance.  Too often a board will measure the performance of the agency and neglect measuring their own performance. At best, many boards’ self-performance evaluation is limited to evaluating the start and end time of meetings or the quality of the takeout food served at the event.  High performing boards create meaningful measures of board performance. While it might be tempting to measure performance by attendance, percent of board members donating to the agency, and the on-time completion of the executive director performance evaluation, these are fairly un-strategic measures. Strategic measures go further and might track such benchmarks as the regularity and content of executive or planning sessions, engagement of members outside of board meetings, or the percent of meeting time spent in strategy versus administration. Additional measures might be tracking the time required to recruit skilled board members or membership retention.  For many boards shifting to performance-based board management can represent a sea change in culture and is likely only achieved after carefully facilitated strategic conversations and thoughtful planning.

5.  Get the Right People on Board:  A final starting point is to conduct a thoughtful review of board recruitment strategies.  Does the agency have clear board member job descriptions?  Are members sought out individually for skills and expertise? Do board members invest time in cultivating potential board members?  Many small to mid-sized nonprofit agency have difficulty staffing their boards let alone staffing their boards with highly qualified community leaders.  Having worked with many such boards, I will not underestimate the challenge of this task.  However, establishing a clear recruitment strategy and creating a meaningful board structure with the expectations of continual learning, performance-measurement, and strategic engagement will become reinforcing cycle that raises expectations and organizational optimism.   Energy and engagement creates energy and engagement.

Developing a high performing board is not a trivial task.  Indeed, I would contend that for many agencies, creating a high performing board may an intentional process that spans a year or more. However, despite the challenges of reinventing a board, facilitating a process to develop a high performing board is critical as nonprofits seek to thrive in the continuing economic uncertainty and instability.  High performing organizations of  tomorrow are those that develop and maintain high performing boards today.

~ Mark

Photo Credit MagicDesk

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.