By: Emily Wolinsky
A board of directors could be compared to a family. Exceptionally awesome boards, like exceptionally awesome families, value:
- Diverse Perspectives and Contributions
There are a lot of terrific boards and families that you’ll love being part of, and some you’ll find may not be a good fit. Without examining shared values early, overseeing operations can get complex and difficult, which hurts you and the organization you’re devoting time to improving. The process of joining a board requires a thorough evaluation of values by all interested parties in order to get the most benefit for the organization in the most efficient manner possible.
Extended Metaphor, Part 1: Tash [Board President] brings home Sonny [New Board Member] to meet their family [Board of Directors] for the first time over Thanksgiving break [Board Interview]. Sonny, madly in love with Tash [Organization’s Mission], wants to love and be loved by Tash’s family. In order for this to happen, Sonny and Tash’s family will look to see if they have similar values.
VALUE #1: COMMUNICATION
Competent board leaders provide their directors with consistent and frequent chances to give direction and feedback to those in control of organizational operations. Leaders do this without allowing individual members to monopolize, prevent, or hurt how the organization operates.
While everyone on the board should communicate well, the board secretary’s primary job is to keep records of communication on the board. Many of the questions below could be answered by the board secretary. If the secretary can’t answer the questions or provide evidence to demonstrate that the board is communicating in an effective way, this is a red flag.
Extended Metaphor, Part 2: Tash’s mom [Board Secretary] quickly became the person to go to for information, stories, and ideas. Sonny was able to learn about family traditions and her recipes [Board Policies and Procedures] were so easy to follow! Because of her great communication skills, Sonny never felt left out of the action and it explained a lot about why Tash was such a great communicator as well, which made Sonny love Tash even more.
VALUE #2: RELATIONSHIPS
Along with promoting opportunities for communication, an optimal board works to encourage bonds between members that are worthwhile, meaningful, and productive to the organization. Effective board leaders set an example of ethics, transparency, and passion for all members to imitate. Board relationships with these qualities build a foundation of trust for directors that allows for good work to be done. Every board has a Connector or someone who brings people together to help them get to know one another and find common ground.
The typical board Connector is a lot like the most popular kid in school and this person is often the “face of the organization.” For some organizations the Connector is the president, for some it’s the hired executive director who runs the organization, and for some organizations there may be multiple Connectors. Connectors should lead and hold the four other values, and good ones do not hold favorites or manipulate relationships, they enhance them for the good of the organization.
Extended Metaphor, Part 3: Sonny learns pretty quick one of the family’s Connectors is Dana [Board Vice President], Tosh’s sister, who introduced Sonny to every member of the family and took a lot of time chatting with the couple to find out how they met, what they loved about one another, and what they had in common. Then Dana spent a considerable amount of time guiding Sonny through a long conversation with the family matriarch, Grandmother Pat [Board Treasurer], who Dana explained sometimes has a hard time not talking about anything but politics [Financial Reports and Fundraising], which was something Sonny wasn’t into. Still, thanks to Dana, she was able to get Grandma Pat’s approval and blessing.
VALUE #3: DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
While each director brings strengths, talents, and their own individual personalities to the board room table, their co-directors will also want to add their recipes to the mix, as well as everyone else who holds a stake in the organization’s success. A good board should always welcome and embrace diverse perspectives and contributions from all who support and enhance the organization’s mission.
The people served by the organization, in looking at the composition of the board, should find themselves instead of strangers. If your organization serves a diverse community, which will no doubt be inevitable if it grows and serves members of our society, it should include directors who live different lives and in turn, know different tricks of the trade.
Board leadership should especially value diverse perspectives and contributions. A successful board reacts in a positive way to feedback and constructive criticism from outside stakeholders, supporters, and their own directors, as well as seeks balanced perspectives and contributions from the Executive Director and paid staff of the organization. As the old adage goes, it takes a village; and everyone who lives in that village is important, unique, and has something to offer it.
Extended Metaphor, Part 4: When Tosh explained to Sonny that his family was diverse, boy was it ever! Dana, Tosh’s sister and the family’s Connector, married a man from China and their children speak four languages. Grandma Pat just turned 101 this year and has, it seems, multiple lifetimes of experience. During Thanksgiving dinner, the entire family was open to hearing stories about Sonny’s background and culture, as well as enjoy the dish she made with a recipe passed down from her Peruvian auntie. It also seemed like the family as a whole welcomed all kinds of people to their home and relished in their abilities to know someone who could help another someone solve a problem.
VALUE #4: RESOURCES
Managing resources with a conservative, open, honest and responsible approach shows that a board of directors values people, time, funding, and data – its resources. For most nonprofit organizations and their directors, people and time are the resources that are the most utilized and sensitive to manage; funding is the resource that is most protected and complicated; and data is the resource that is most relevant to the needs of the organization and often difficult to obtain when overseeing the success of the entire operation.
People and Time => Most Utilized and Sensitive to Manage
Funding => Most Protected and Complicated
Data => Most Relevant and Difficult to Obtain
When people love being part of an organization because of its mission and aim to serve, time from the people devoted to that organization must be valued. Yes, directors choose to take a seat at the table because they are passionate about the work of the organization, but most nonprofits require that directors also contribute a resource to the board.
Since many organizations are small and serve underserved communities, directors more often choose to contribute time to attending meetings, organizing events, and advocating or promoting the organization through outreach efforts. Directors also often lead busy lives and many serve on multiple boards, therefore, board and organizational leadership will need to be considerate of each director’s level of involvement and commitment without overtaxing them. No one wants a director to burn out.
Funding is the most protected resource for the organization because mismanagement of funds can lead to disastrous consequences. When a director is said to have a “fiduciary duty” to the organization, the director (usually the treasurer or Chief Financial Officer) with the duty must make recommendations that will benefit the organization the most in the most responsible way. Usually a fiduciary duty applies to funding. The board must feel confident in the treasurer or Chief Financial Officer and trust that they are competent in handling and reporting on the organization’s financial status. If the director in charge of organizational accounts and funding does not provide regular status updates to the directors, this is a red flag.
Finally, in order for directors to make the best decisions on behalf of the organization, directors need to look at data. Data is factual, statistical, information that takes the organization’s temperature to see if the organization is doing what it has set out to do with its mission statement. Overseeing data collection and organization, and making decisions with that data requires policies and procedures for handling this information with utmost sensitivity and care. For example, the board should demonstrate behaviors that preserve the confidentiality of donor information. Second, policy and procedure manuals for the organization should exist and provide clear direction for handling internal data systems in the event that the directors managing those resources need to leave the board for unplanned reasons.
Extended Metaphor, Part 5: As Thanksgiving dinner came together, Sonny marveled at how well the dinner came together without a lot of lost time or bickering. Everyone was equally involved in the preparation of the meal and all were at about the same level of exhaustion by the time dessert came out of the oven [Time Resource Management]. Once dessert was served, Grandpa Gustavo [Chief Financial Officer] invited Sonny and Tosh, as well as some of the other grown grandchildren to play his version of Cooperative Monopoly where he was the banker and made sure not a dollar was misspent [Fiduciary Responsibility] . Right before Tosh and Sonny left for home, Dana reminded Sonny to check and see if it was okay with Sonny’s auntie to catalog her recipe [Data Management]. Sonny was so excited to be included that for the entire car ride home, Sonny and Tosh couldn’t stop smiling.
Overseeing Operations – Sample Bylaws, Sample Board Minutes, and Sample Annual Report
Doing Good Better by Edgar Stoesz – Book available in accessible formats on Bookshare and for purchase on Amazon
Basic Duties and Role of Nonprofit Boards (web article)
Alliance for Nonprofit Management – Organization Website
ABOUT THE EXPERTEmily Wolinsky
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