Boards adding value

by Jini Stolk

I had a conversation this morning with a long-time arts board member who feels that now, just as when he first started, most board members don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing. He personally took the time to mentor new board members and his board developed, over time, a detailed description of board responsibilities. But there’s still no universal template, no rule book, no easy answers.

Here’s one straightforward idea: board members are supposed to add value to the organization; their most important role is to take the long view – asking “what could be” before asking “what if” if things go wrong. There should be a complementary and collaborative leadership relationship between the board and CEO – each making different decisions, pulling different levers, but sharing the objective of creating the greatest possible value for the company. The board’s job, then, is to define culture, strategize, communicate vision, appoint the CEO, and inspire them.

This piece says that boards of community-based nonprofits should be concerned not primarily with financial oversight and accountability but with the ongoing sustainability of their organizations. Boards have to understand and engage with the “interdependent mix of programs and fundraising activities that work together to achieve a set of impacts and financial results…(so they can) meaningfully assist with the dogged pursuit of sustainability in which so many of their executives find themselves.” There’s no wiggle room here: board work includes resource development.

Another way to think about it is to differentiate between a board’s steering vs. rowing work.

In 2005 the charitable sector in the UK actually developed a Code of Governance, now being revised to place greater emphasis on the responsibility of trustees “to excel in their role and provide strong leadership.” Seventy-four percent of charity chief executives say their groups use the code, which helps them “meet changing expectations of donors, public sector clients, and those they serve.”

Among the changes currently being considered are:

  • Guidelines that help boards promote prudence, but also understand that being risk averse is itself a risk
  • Regularly assessing whether or not the work of the charity is still relevant in a changing world
  • Increased expectations about board composition, ethical standards, and terms of office

I’m going to quote extensively from a post by Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 on What a board is for because I think she’s got it right.

“For my first couple years as a nonprofit executive director, I was mystified about the board of trustees. Beyond the legal requirements, I didn’t understand what it was for and why it was necessary…I thought of the board as a benign, friendly force. I saw them as supporters, advisors, fundraisers, and champions. I expected them to provide guidance to keep the organization on the right track, like bumpers on bowling lanes…I wanted their support, participation, and advice, but—when I’m being really honest with myself—not their leadership.

All that changed when we started the (large new) Abbott Square (capital) project in 2013. Suddenly, I was way out of my comfort zone. I knew a bit about community planning, creative placemaking, and business planning, but that was it. I knew nothing about capital campaigns, real estate development, contract negotiations, nor city permitting processes. I didn’t need a little advice; I needed deep partners to explore what the project could be and how it would work.

And so I turned to my board…Every step of the project, board members extended our reach and improved the project. They provided superb expertise matched by thoughtful enthusiasm that money couldn’t buy. And they took ownership alongside me of the key decisions, budget allocations, and struggles along the way. The most important thing they took co-ownership of was the courage to see the project through. If they hadn’t been there…I probably would have pulled back or shrunk the project at key stress points.

This project taught me that a great board is not one that supports the staff and buys into the Executive Director’s vision. A great board supplements the staff and expands the vision. They take you places you could never go by yourself.”

So be it.



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