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At times of governance crisis (sudden departure of a CEO, major change in direction, significant stakeholder discontent etc.) a criticism regularly levelled at boards by is that they are “faceless” men and women disconnected from the real Not for Profit community that they serve.
Not much is known of what boards do from month to month, and in most organisations you would be hard pressed if you asked a staff member who was on the board to get a response beyond one or maybe two people (and usually only the name of the Chair).
We all want Board members committed to our organisations values, vision and purpose to serve as Board members. Depending on your governance structure, new Board members are elected or appointed to your board from a range of sources – company members, sponsoring church members or leaders, parents, diocesan personnel, staff, past beneficiaries of the organisation etc.
But here’s the problem – in our pursuit of best practice governance processes our boards have often become disconnected with the communities in which they serve – in their quest to let management manage and the board govern they have, at the one end of the pendulum, abdicated rather than delegated the authority and responsibility of operating the organisation to the professional staff. This has happened because the board has attempted to adopt a governance model, but not actually done the work to establish board policy and monitor executive performance, leading to a disconnect between the board and management.
This usually happens despite the best intentions – the CEO and senior staff are the professionals after all – dedicated career men and women having developed this expertise over many years. The board wants to and should support their professional staff and let them have delegated authority. However, have we thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater in our quest for best practice governance, and is now the time for boards to examine more strategically how they are engaging with the Not for Profit community as a whole? I think so.
In our work with Not for Profits we see boards at all different places on the governance spectrum – with the “hands on” management board at one end of the spectrum, and “hands off” abdicating boards at the opposite end. Meeting in the middle, what can boards do to ensure that balance is maintained in engagement with organisations broader community. How should boards engage with their communities in a healthy way? Here are a few examples:
1) Renovate your Annual General Meeting and transform this from being a dry affair focussing on financial statement approval to an event celebrating the results of strategic plan wins. Have staff and volunteers share results of your Not for Profit operations, and what serving in the organisation means to them – help give a face to the board in terms of reporting on what the longer term vision and mission of the organisation is to the community. This could be followed by a more formal part of the meeting where members or moral owners elect directors and approve financial statements etc.
2) Implement a community sentiment survey. This is a great way for boards to connect with the community. We recommend to clients that a Not for Profit link an organisation wide sentiment survey with their strategic planning cycle – so that every 3 to 5 years the board gets a snapshot of sentiment from the community. This provides valuable information that can be tracked over successive strategic plans, and forms the basis for some much needed non financial key performance indicators to help measure the performance of the organisation and its leadership.
3) Give board members some profile in the organisation. In some organisations there is a great practice where individual board members are rostered during the year to come and present something to a staff meeting. This might be simply an interview out the front by the CEO of the board member, or the board member presenting awards or speaking on a topic related to the Not for Profit. Don’t just limit all your board face time to the Chair – give them a break from the limelight and get your other board members involved so that they can connect to the community.
It is important that your board knows very clearly its governance role. Inviting the board to connect more with your community can be dangerous if the board and management are unclear about this. We recommend that the board has in place clear board policy around the distinction between their governance role and the role of management in the organisation. This will help to ensure that your board members involvement stays healthy and a positive experience for both the board member and management.