Dodge TA: Building the board you need to grow in tumultuous times

Posted on by Laura Otten
Boards that put in minimal effort or that were working on the wrong things, like doing management’s job, before the lockdown orders are likely to be the ones who have remained so or have become even more so. Photo by Roy Bisschops Creative Commons

Pennsylvania went into “lockdown” first. Within a week, New Jersey, and New York had followed suit. 

My conversations with board members and executive directors started on March 13, the day Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf announced that the Commonwealth would go on lockdown. 

The conversations kept coming, and have yet to stop. Very quickly, it became apparent that there were two dominant modes of operation for nonprofit boards: stepping up and leaning in or they went (or remained, as they had been) AWOL. 

As recently as last week, I have had more executive directors than I care to count tell me they haven’t heard from a board member, let alone the board president, since this whole thing started. 

What can we learn from the differences between these two responses? 

To start with the obvious, boards that were at the less engaged or disengaged end of the continuum — doing perfunctory things with minimal effort or feeling as though they were working hard but were working on the wrong things such as doing management’s job — before lockdown orders are likely to be the ones who have remained so or to have become even more so. 

The boards in the middle of the engaged spectrum were likely to have remained engaged and/or stepped up their games. 

Thus, it came as no surprise that many of the boards that were working on themselves and that had a higher degree of self-awareness are among those that have stepped up. 

Successful engagement isn’t a switch that can be readily flipped. 

There are lessons to be learned from this experience and others that have transpired over the last several months that can inform the next phase of adjusting to life in a time when a pandemic is a reality. This list of lessons is by no means exhaustive.

  1. Virtual board meetings work.  

Virtual board meetings where everyone has a camera and the camera is turned on so everyone can see one another live work even better.

While I’ve not seen data to support my hypothesis, it goes like this: virtual board meetings are convenient. In pre-COVID-19 days, a 90-minute board meeting easily became at least a two-and-a-half hour chunk of a day between driving to and from, parking, traffic, and parking lot conversations. That’s a big difference. 

Someone with limited resources, such as lack of childcare or transportation, can more easily attend a virtual meeting. Replicate this time commitment for committee meetings, and you can see why some board members might be doing a better job of engaging. 

As an aside, the dynamic of a meeting where 100 percent of participants are attending virtually is very different than a meeting where some are face-to-face and others are attending virtually. Do not equate the two. 

Whenever we move back to being able to have face-to-face gatherings, consider a meeting schedule that is a mixture of face-to-face and all virtual.

  • Board leadership really and truly matters. 

This is no news flash, but leaders make a difference. As Jim Collins put into our lexicon: the right people in the right seats is part of the equation for exceptional organizations. 

The board president who understood their true role and responsibilities and fulfilled them before COVID-19 continues to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic. The failure of board presidents to step up and rally others to step up underscores the lack of care and attention that too many boards bring to the selection of their leaders. 

Choosing a board chair/president should never be about “who” but always about “what.” What are the skills, talents, and attributes that are needed in this position now — in the times in which that person is being elected and for the period of time they will serve? 

While there are some constants — like being a good listener, a facilitator, a strong communicator, well-respected, having the time, and being willing to commit the time — there are some things that will vary depending upon where the organization is in its current lifecycle and its current strategic priorities. For example, if an organization is engaged in activities that demand garnering wide-spread support — such as a major fundraising campaign, building/renovating new space, branching into a new community — the board president should be a strong public speaker, and comfortable glad-handing.

If the focus is on internal concerns — such as strengthening the organization’s business model or handling an executive transition — the board president should be both detail- and process- oriented, while also have the ability to move things to conclusion, rather than kicking the can down the road. 

Going forward, don’t just select a person to be board president — identify those assets that are needed to be a superb board president and elect those assets. And, if those assets can’t be found all in one person, elect co-presidents.

  • Board comfort with fiduciary, strategic, and generative governance is essential for successful boards

It is not enough that board members are present at board meetings. Presence ensures neither engagement nor that the right work is taking place. 

It is imperative that boards are doing their work and working in all three modes, moving seamlessly from one to the other as the work demands. 

Many boards operate only in the fiduciary mode, a mode of governance that, essentially, ensures compliance, that boxes are checked: we have the necessary policies, we are reviewing the performance of the executive director; we are approving the budget and looking at financials throughout the year, and so on. When done right, fiduciary mode ensures the status quo, nothing more. 

Strategic governance, a mode too few boards employ, allows for the path forward. The strategic thinking boards may engage in during strategic planning is not strategic governance. Strategic governance is needed throughout the year, and moves the thinking from the simple question of “do we have x?” (fiduciary) to “is X the best way to do Y?” 

Generative governance takes things a step further and opens the door for innovation, moving from “is X the best way to do Y?” to “is Y really the right end goal?”  If ever there were a time for generative governance, it is now.

Unfortunately, a board does not move from operating in one mode to operating in all three overnight. There must be intentional recruitment of board members capable of working in at least two of these three modes and leadership that facilitates board and committee meetings that facilitate the use of the modes that are most needed for each situation. Boards must create a culture that understands and values the contributions and strengths of each mode. This is what makes the difference between being present and being engaged and leaning in. 

As you move to bring on new board members, be mindful of their ability and interest in working in these three modes.

  • Boards must have a culture of philanthropy

There is board member giving and there is a board culture of philanthropy — successful organizations have the latter. 

Philanthropy is a philosophy of life and not a measure of one’s wealth.  Philanthropy — giving/caring that incurs some degree of sacrifice on the part of the giver — is an understanding, a way of life, a core value for many. 

Philanthropists join boards with the desire to share with that organization their time, talents, and treasure, and are surprised when that isn’t the expectation of them and everyone else. 

As with any value, it cannot be legislated, so we must look for it in board candidates. Finding it can be as simple as asking questions that explore their understanding of what philanthropy is, their family experience with philanthropy, their approach to philanthropy. As with anything, what is not said is as informative as what is said.

  • It is imperative that board members deeply understand the work of the organization

Board members can’t help, no matter how much they are trying to lean in, if they don’t truly understand the work of the organization and understand how the mission promises are translated into action. This understanding requires more than reading about it or being told about it. It requires witnessing it. 

Like many of the items above, witnessing it doesn’t happen overnight, but rather over time. It begins with board candidates witnessing the mission in action, some or all, depending upon the nature of an organization. 

It continues with regular witnessing of the mission. Think “Take a Board Member to Work” day, or even half day, along with opportunities to interact with clients — that’s intentionally plural.

But no matter how engaged they are, how well they can jump from generative to fiduciary to strategic, how good board leadership is, and how philanthropic they are, all efforts will easily go astray if they are not grounded in a deep understanding of the work and culture of the organization.

  • A board must lead the organization as it works on DEI

As the top of the organizational chart, a board must model the behavior it expects of the rest of the organization and live the values of the organization. Nowhere is this more important than with diversity, equity, and inclusion. This was exceedingly important before the killing of George Floyd, and now it is an absolute imperative. 

It has always been a best practice that a board be reflective of the constituency it serves, a constituency that is rarely monolithic.  

Becoming an inclusive organization is not as simple as recruiting people who are “different,” it requires active work to make sure that the organization, and in this case, the board culture, is truly open to and ready to embrace different ideas, philosophies, ways of thinking, and doing things.

This requires that the board take a hard look in the mirror and consider how well it handles new ideas, change, and difference of opinions and perspective. Boards are best served by a civil clash of ideas than acquiescing to follow the leader or the loudest voice. 

In addition, the culture must be free of structural impediments that prevent others from joining. For example, would the giving expectation preclude some people from joining the board? Would the expectation a person know and be in close relationships with wealthy people preclude people from joining the board? Would meeting times make it difficult for a someone employed or a single parent or a parent of young children to attend meetings? Would getting to the meeting location be a challenge for someone dependent upon public transportation? 

Once a board is sure its culture will be inclusive, it must then make sure its recruitment process is inclusive. Instead of looking in current board members’ phones for potential new board members, the board must look in new places, and use new ways, such as tabling at events in the community the organization serves or reaching out to the communities’ civic and faith leaders, or advertising in media outlets that reach different populations.  The options are quite plentiful once the importance of doing things differently is recognized. 

With the possibility of the first item on this list, none of this is a new “ah, ha!”

It may feel new to some because the pandemic and protests brought them out of the shadows. Now that they are called out and named and the pandemic and protests have made visible a clear path forward, it is time to get to work so that your organization can benefit from the best board possible, in good times as well as bad.

Laura Otten, a Dodge Technical Assistance faculty member, is executive director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University.

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