Board Leadership: Bullseye!

Posted on by by David Grant, former President and CEO, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

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What does October conjure up for you? Fall foliage and apple cider? Baseball playoffs and Halloween costumes? Much as I appreciate those things, I primarily associate October with a favorite annual event: the kick-off of the Dodge Board Leadership Training series.

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I love seeing old friends, some of them executive directors back for a second or third time with new board members at their sides, and I am full of admiration for the people I am just meeting who have not only stepped up to nonprofit board service but also committed themselves to learning how to do it well. After all, as everyone ruefully admits, their orientation to the job was rarely extensive.

The Dodge series focuses on how board members think about their roles and responsibilities, because the way they think determines how they act. And over the course of eight sessions between October and May, we give them a lot to think about: nonprofit life-cycles; formative assessment; strategic planning; fund-raising; financial management; recruitment and retention of new board members; the relationship between the board and the executive director; the challenges of change.

As I lead the first session of the training series, I am keenly aware that these are volunteers with busy lives, and they tune into the nonprofit organizations they govern at intervals, not everyday. So, I am eager to give them a few simple concepts upon which to build a learning journey that goes on as long as they are active in the social sector. One of those concepts is the “golden circles,” now widely known through the TEDx talk given by Simon Sinek, titled How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

Sinek reminds us that we tend to spend a lot of time talking about “what” we do and too little about “why” we do it. Indeed, for mission-driven organizations, everything should stem from the Why, from a core, shared sense of purpose. So a basic board function becomes clear: being sure that the mission and goals of their organization are clear, and being sure that the vision for the future they represent is shared.

This function should be at the heart of orientation of new board members because it reminds all board members – new and old — why they said “yes” to board service. It is striking how many of the decisions they will make will flow from their ongoing, shared, specific response to the question of why their organization exists.

But as we begin the eight-month series of workshops, let’s let the golden circles raise two other important, more general questions: Why do nonprofit organizations have boards; and perhaps more importantly, Why do nonprofit organizations need good boards?

Why do they have boards? When you look at board responsibilities, stated as three legal duties, you realize the basic job is about maintaining minimum standards. It is about the floor, not the ceiling, of board performance and organizational effectiveness. The Duty of Care says to show up and know what’s going on; the Duty of Loyalty says to act upon the interests of the organization rather than your own; the Duty of Obedience says to pay attention to all legal requirements regarding filing, reporting, and other conduct.

Fair enough. The board represents the larger community and needs to pay attention, give advice, and ensure there is no fraud or malfeasance with funds that have received tax advantages. But it is possible to meet these requirements and not help an organization bring about the social benefits – the social profit — its mission promises.

When you focus on social profit, you understand that the reason nonprofit organizations need boards goes far beyond meeting 501(c) 3 legal requirements. It is because it is impossible to build a high-functioning and productive culture without them.

Boards are guardians of the WHY to be sure, but they also have an opportunity to define and embody the HOW of their organizations along with the staff. Those are the boards that see themselves as learners: who evaluate themselves and their CEOs in ways that make them better at their tasks; who both present and represent the missions of their organizations to their communities; who renew their own ranks with patient recruitment and a dynamic sense of what their changing organizations will need in a changing world; who ensure the financial sustainability of their organizations through generosity, outreach, and strategic planning; who create and protect time to discuss important matters in calm, not crisis.

Those are the boards who know and live their values, so that HOW they pursue their WHY, together and in partnership with others, becomes their calling card to the larger world. When that happens, the WHAT tends to take care of itself.

David Grant is the author of The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations. He is the former Dodge Foundation president, a facilitator in the Foundation’s Board Leadership technical assistance workshop series, and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog. 

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