Building Better Boards

In Board Development by Geoff Burns

Boards have the ultimate responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the organization. It doesn’t matter how big or small the organization is, the board can make or break the mission. Before you decide to nudge your board into a major overhaul, it is important know if a change is needed. As mentioned in the last post, assessments can help with this process.

If you think something is wrong, but you just can’t put your finger on the issues, try looking for potential indicators that something is not quite right. Some common indicators of struggling boards are burnout, high turnover, micro-managing, low attendance and participation, maybe even conflict amongst the members.

The non-profit organization works best when it is highly structured. When structures are soundly developed and maintained, the actions of the members becomes more focused thereby determining outcomes that are positive for the organization. In highly functioning boards, the actions are more important than the blame. In fact, blame is never helpful, only divisive.

Board members who are not willing to put in the time and effort needed to learn about the organization and address the polices and functions of the board will often find themselves working on the same problems time and time again. While keeping meetings short may help the board members feel like participating, their ability to actually tackle problems diminishes significantly when there is not adequate time for dealing with those issues. Longer, more frequent meetings are much more productive than short infrequent ones. If board members cannot commit to the time requirements, it may be time to look for new members.

Remember, telling a frustrated board that they need to change is not going to make it happen. They need to be heard, not told. This is another opportunity for an assessment of the leadership of the organization. This is time to focus on the “how” not the “who.”

If Jim is burned out and Sara thinks that Jim is the problem with the board, we need to find out why Jim is burned out instead of blaming Jim for his problems. A high functioning board will find the “who” irrelevant except in the cases where a member is acting outside of the interests of the organization. In this case it is better to assign more specific tasks with deadlines and desired outcomes. This will either get them more involved with the organization or they will likely leave. If they stay, it could be that they felt they were not permitted to help or contribute to the organization.

Focus on the structure. Diversity is great, but don’t let desire for diversity to take away from the mission of the organization. That being said, never discount another person or their abilities just because the are different than you!