Reflections of an Outgoing Nonprofit Board Chair
I wrote this post in 2011 and it still holds true today.
Last week I facilitated my last board meeting as chair of Resolutions Northwest (RNW), Oregon’s largest nonprofit community mediation center. With this meeting, I completed five years of service on the board as a member, treasurer and, for the last three years, board chair. During my time on the board, the darkest days were those when the agency managed a turbulent staffing crisis and again when it weathered the elimination of a longstanding contracted service program. The brighter days are those of late, where, in the last three years RNW has nearly doubled its revenues, expanded its facilitation and restorative justice programs, and has begun to engage volunteers and donors more deeply in the success of the agency. With a newly developed strategic plan, solid community partners, and a deep commitment to keeping the strategic plan active and alive, I am leaving RNW as a vibrant organization well positioned for continued growth. In this post, I wanted to offer some reflections on core attributes of a strong nonprofit board. I talk about these from the “blended” perspective of being both a nonprofit consultant as well as outgoing board chair. The article is a companion to an earlier post I wrote on nonprofit board performance (link here) and represents additional and somewhat overlapping principles that will help boards to be successful. These principles include:
1. Developing Organizational Depth: Most nonprofit board members are earnest in their commitment to support the organization that they serve. Indeed the commitment to a mission is often the beginning of service on a board. Turning commitment into effectiveness involves helping board members gain organizational depth. It is my belief that organizational depth is experiential and best gained by engaging board members in the core of the agency’s programs and services. As examples: job shadowing, volunteering at the program level, and conducting joint board/staff training sessions are some ways to provide opportunities for board members to gain organizational depth.
2. Creating a Strong Board Chair – Executive Director Relationship: An anchor to the success of my board service with RNW was my developing a strong productive relationship with the RNW’s Executive Director. Betsy Coddington and I developed a positive working relationship that was, at various times, configured as collegial, coaching, and even confrontational. The chair should not simply be the spokesperson for the executive director nor should it be vice versa. The relationship between board chair and executive director is based on relational authority and not positional authority. The board chair-executive director relationship is well articulated in a Journal for Nonprofit Management (linked here).
3. Understand Nonprofit Management: Early in my board experience with RNW, I saw firsthand the challenge of having a board chair who lacked a strong understanding of board governance and nonprofit operations. Indeed, as a human resource crisis unfolded, the chair abruptly resigned, leaving the executive committee to move forward without him. Fortunately, other and I was able to step in to help. More than any other event I ever came across, before or since, this incidence left an indelible imprint of the importance of having board leadership team who understand principles of nonprofit management and governance. It also underscored that this resident knowledge needs to be embodied in the entire executive committee and ideally across the entire board. Indeed, building such understanding is the reason many boards set up mentorship programs, board development workshops and structure succession planning for leadership positions.
4. Building a Board Intentionally: I posted a blog entry almost a year ago that outlined an approach to thinking about board membership (linked here). While today, I might broaden the concept of fundraising to include civic reach and use slightly more refined language (based on my evolving practice and experience) the outline of the post remains useful. Building an intentional board is an ongoing process of the systematic expansion of a board. The core expectation for all board members starts with an understanding of governance but beyond that expectation, a board should build membership around an alchemy of operations expertise, content expertise, and development expertise (a mix of resource planning, fundraising, and civic reach). Intentional board building takes longer than accepting any willing volunteer into board service. Intentionality implies that due diligence becomes more refined, recruitment more strategic, and that a board is willing to engage in thoughtful outreach to the community in search of strong board members.
5. Staying Focused on the Strategic: As readers of this blog know, nonprofit strategy is a core theme of my consulting practice. So it should come as no surprise that I believe that effective boards are those organizing around strategy. At one point in my tenure as board chair at RNW, we decided intentionally not to pursue a formal strategic planning process. We chose instead to spend a fraction of the time we would have spent in strategic planning to create one-two page strategic intentions that defined a short-term strategy across four operational areas. The board then focused on these intentions and the made significant progress across all four areas that resulted in new programs, revenues, and focus for the organization. The strategic intentions served well as a “bridge strategy ” for a short operational period. Concurrently, we spent time building the capacity of the board and, once in place, we engaged in a formal strategic planning process to guide the organization’s growth over the next 4-5 years. A relentless focus on the strategic is essential to advancing the capacity of nonprofit agencies.
6. Establishing a Strong Advisory Network: My experience as a board member and consultant suggests that many boards often don’t understand the critical role advisors play in nonprofit management. I have heard many boards oppose investing in basic advisory support such as an accounting firm, information technology (IT) support, or a human resource (HR) service provider, even though such advisors are critical to risk management and effective governance. Along with IT, HR, and accounting, over my years at RNW we established relationships with consultants for services such as grant writing and fundraising. While with some initial resistance to overcome, the strategic use of consultants strengthened RNW’s organizational practices. Effective boards recognize and value the support of external expertise. Competent staff, an engaged board, and the strategic use of external consultants create a “three-legged stool” of support for an organization’s capacity.
7. Measuring Progress: Effective boards establish clear accountability for themselves, the agency’s staff and to the larger community. Self-assessments, quality benchmarks, performance dashboards serve as tools to increase accountability and transparency. By periodically stopping, assessing, and reflecting a board is in a stronger position to improve, adapt, and change. I left RNW’s board just as we completed a board self-assessment that provided rich data to be used by the board as they begin a performance improvement process.
8. Fostering Effective Board Operations. Of course there are other facets of developing a strong board such as creating a good operational structure, documenting relevant by-laws, effectively using of committees and formally evaluating board performance. Unfortunately, many boards confuse strong board operations with a strong board but as this post illustrates, board operations are just one variable contributing to an effective board.
As the current political landscape continues to promise economic uncertainty and possibly even deep cuts to the social service infrastructure, nonprofits will need to adapt and change. For many nonprofits this ability to adapt and change will be directly correlated to the focus and strength of the agency’s board. Indeed, I suggest that only a strong and effective board is capable of designing and delivering the kind of strategic guidance that will be required to navigate the uncharted waters ahead. While the list of effectiveness indicators in this blog is not necessarily complete, it does represent focused, actionable touch points that can serve as the basis for assessing the strengthening the effectiveness of a nonprofit board. For any agency thinking about the future, these principles of effectiveness give a point of reference by which an agency can judge the strength and direction of its board.
As always your thoughts are welcome.
Photo Credit: Michael Ramey
Companion 12 page PDF: Ten Steps for Building an Effective Nonprofit Board: A Checklist for Action
Post Script: I would be remiss not to thank the current and former staff and board members of Resolutions Northwest who have helped shape the organization as a power for good in the community. And in appreciation to their dedication, I encourage you to support the organization by making a one-time or monthly gift to support peacemaking and conflict resolution in the greater Portland area. You can donate here.