I have been asked numerous times by clients to describe what a “good board” looks like. I understand the point of the question–what is the right size, what are the right committees, etc. But asking what a board should look like misses the more important point, which is this: a good board is defined not by what it looks like but rather how it thinks and behaves.
Based on my work as both a consultant and board chair for a large nonprofit, I have concluded a “good board” exhibits three essential and interrelated characteristics.
1. A good board is one in which form follows function. “Do we need a marketing committee?” is the poster question for this phenomenon. The answer is, of course, “It depends.” Specifically, it depends on a) what your organization is trying to accomplish strategically and b) what you need from your board to make it happen. I have seen valuable time wasted trying to fill committee slots simply because the committee exists on paper. If the people were in place, one should ask, what would we have them do? If there is no compelling answer, chances are your board has been wasting energy trying to create a function to fill an existing form.
2. A good board is one whose work is aligned with the life stage of the organization. As we know from the excellent work on “nonprofit lifecycles” from Susan Kenney Stevens, nonprofits move through predictable stages of development. However, not all aspects of the organization move forward in lockstep. Usually, it is the board role that lags behind the evolution of the program model and the administrative systems. One key consideration for the board of a maturing organization is to have an honest discussion about how far removed from the “inner circle” its members are drawn. As a start-up or young organization, the board is made up of people who have a direct personal connection to the mission and/or are drawn to the charisma of the founder. The work of the board at this stage consists of gathering together, rolling up the collective sleeves and pitching in to get the work done. Unfortunately, some boards unwittingly create a mismatch of interest and skill by retaining the same board orientation long after the other aspects of the organization have settled. The board that is able to reorient its work and perhaps even repopulate its committees to support the emerging needs of the organization is positioned to become a good board.
3. A good board is one that values principles over practices. I have written about the shortcomings of a “best practices” approach, particularly when too much credence is given to merely mimicking the practices of other organizations. (The short version of the argument is that things work in a particular context because of everything else that is going on within that context). By contrast, effectiveness principles focus on the desired ends and the manner in which those ends are pursued.
For me, it boils down to three key principles:
Effective Oversight. Oversight means striking the balance between trust and verification. Financial crises don’t develop overnight but over time. Too often, boards are forced to respond in crisis mode because they didn’t ask the right questions, didn’t ask the right questions soon enough or didn’t know what the right questions were. Like the frog in the boiling water, a board that doesn’t pay close attention to the elements in the environment may discover too late things are getting hot.
Open Communication. I have been involved in more than one contentious discussion about the “need to know.” Here’s the deal: there are no degrees or ranks when it comes to board authority. Anything important enough for the board chair or executive committee to know is important enough for every board member to know. Granted, sensitive personnel issues may be better kept under a tight lid. But this is the exception. Nothing is more disengaging for board members than the presence of a pocket of power (and information is power) within the board.
Strict Accountability. Simply put, some boards are just too darn nice to each other. Yes, the board was relying on the resource development committee to plan the upcoming event. And it didn’t get done. But they are very busy people…you shouldn’t expect too much from them. Really? To quote a former client, “Board members should be expected to bleed for the organization.” If you sign up, you are expected to perform. Period.
When it comes to board “goodness,” there really is no there. People change, issues emerge and priorities shift. But focusing on these three characteristics will allow boards to maintain consistency of purpose even in the midst of changing structures.