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This is the second post in a series on nonprofit leadership traits needed now. In the first post of the series, I discussed four traits needed in nonprofit executive leaders. This post adds the perspective about what nonprofit board members need to bring to the table in this turbulent economic and socio-political environment. It is not my intention to recount perspectives of board leadership that I have presented elsewhere (see here) but in the spirit of practice-based lessons learned, I want to share observations I have drawn from serving on (and consulting with) numerous nonprofit boards. From this vantage I would offer that there are five traits of nonprofit boards needed now more than ever.
Have Passion and Dispassion for the Organizational Mission: It almost goes without saying that board members need to have a passion for the organization’s mission. If you have no passion then why else would you give up 8-10 hours a month for an organization? Oh. You’re not giving 8-10 hours a month. Hmmm. Maybe its reflection time. Do you have passion? Board members need to be engaged.
On the other hand, too much passion can cloud your vision and objectivity. Without the ability to be dispassionate at times, you can do a disservice to the agency you support. Sometimes, a board needs to ask the hard question about the mission or the programs and services of the agency — and that requires dispassion. For example, I know of an agency with a model that, ten or fifteen years ago, was a cutting edge and innovative program. The decade that followed changed the landscape dramatically and made the fundamental program approach a dinosaur. Re-invention was desperately needed but the founder relied on the past as a way to cling on to the hope of relevancy. Unless a board can say, “the emperor has no clothes,” a board is not living up to the high standards of governance. Passion for mission sometimes requires dispassionate objectivity.
Demonstrate a Willingness to Take Risks: In my opinion of the banes of nonprofit organizations that is doing good work is to be saddled with an unimaginative and/or conservative board unwilling to take risks. With such boards, statements like “we need to demonstrate low overhead” or “unless it is paid for in advance” become slogans to reward inertia. Coupled with “we never tried that before and it might not work,” and you have the profile of a risk adverse board. I am not suggesting that a nonprofit board abandon due diligence but rather think and act, outside of the proverbial box. Nonprofits today need innovative thinking and an investment culture coming from the board and I argue, that without it, the board destines the nonprofit to mediocrity.
Support the Executive Director: Another board member trait needed now is to support the Executive Director. On one level, support is tactical, such as providing clear performance expectations and ensuring that the organizational leader has the resources and tools to effectively manage the organization. If the board does not fully support the Executive Director, then the board sets the organization up for failure. Note: this assumes that the board is providing the Executive director with performance oversight and has confidence in the leader. Support is also demonstrated when the board members serve in the role of helping the Executive Director to act courageously by providing strategic direction, coaching and informal guidance. Note 2: If a board fails to support the organizational leader or second-guess his/her intentions, it is time for the board to seek help.
Self-Reflect and Self-Assess: A third necessary (yet often missing) trait is a board’s ability to self-reflect and self-assess. While I have written about the competencies of board self-assessment before (see here, & here), it bears repeating that effective boards are those committed to continuous learning and continuous improvement. Such reflective behaviors might be as simple as someone asking, “is this working for us?” when a board conversation is spinning out of control. Self-assessment also includes asking the hard questions related to board effectiveness (a brief checklist I created is here and a more formal evaluation tool can be found here). The specifics of how self-assessment happens may vary from board to board but the trait needed in nonprofit boards today is to cultivate a culture of self-inquiry.
Lead, Follow, or Get out of the Way: A final board trait that I would highlight is the old truism of demonstrating leadership. Beyond a shadow of any doubt, board members that are leaders will advance the organization and a board where leadership is absent will erode the organization. Another example, I once attended a nonprofit funding raising event for an agency with a board of ten directors. For this organization the event was the signature event of the year. Only one board member (who had been on the board 2 months) attended the event. I was dead serious when I suggested to the Executive Director that s/he either fire the board and start over or start looking for a new job. If a board can’t even succeed in leading an organization at such a marginally low bar, how can the agency succeed? Leadership is more than showing up for meetings. Leadership is about strategy, support, and engagement. If a board member can’t do that, then s/he needs to stand aside.
I mentioned in my last article that the increasingly performance driven nonprofit environment demands leaders capable of thinking and acting courageously. In this article, I extend the argument that such leadership is also a core function of a nonprofit board. Passion/dispassion, risk-taking, support, self-reflection, and leadership are core traits needed now. Developing each will increase the potential that your organization will move forward with confidence towards success.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.