Effective board governance in a nutshell

September 28, 2021

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 1:45 pm

Not every one of my client engagements involves work with a board of directors, but enough do that I can safely say I’ve worked with a lot of boards and that’s allowed me to reach some conclusions regarding what separates those that truly lift up their organizations from those that drag them down.

Unfortunately, it could also take a book to spell out all these differences, along with recommendations for how to improve boards.

Nonetheless, someone challenged me to identify the most important attributes of a high-functioning board so they could know where to begin for improving their own board.

So without further ado, here’s my best effort.

High functioning boards do five things particularly well:

  1. They are efficient
  2. They are responsible
  3. They are financially supportive
  4. They are connected to the cause
  5. They are continually improving

An efficient board holds well-run board meetings that are actively facilitated and focus on essential topics, they use committees or task forces where appropriate between meetings, and board-staff relationships are managed in a way that doesn’t create additional, unnecessary time sinks.

A responsible board meets its legal, ethical and fiduciary responsibilities.  Responsibility also means the board has a culture of accountability — if someone commits to a task, they do it.  

Financially supportive means they donate themselves and they have some involvement in raising funds or securing revenue for the organization.  Not everyone needs to be an asker, but everyone needs to somehow engage as an ambassador, steward, cultivator, or in some other way that either directly bring in dollars or helps someone else on the team bring in dollars.

They have some connection to the cause (that staff continually reinforces) so that their passion for the mission can help get past any inertia or fear that would otherwise block them from being effective board members.

Lastly, they are continually improving, meaning they are constantly asking relevant questions, such as: “What skills and attributes do we need to add to the board?” And: “What could we be doing better?”

There are, of course, many details underneath each of these.  Books worth of details.  And the process of taking a mediocre board to high-functioning can take multiple years. There is no silver bullet.

But, if you’re beginning the process of building or improving a board, I think reviewing the above with the board and asking them: “how are we doing?” is a good place to start.

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Effective new board member orientation meetings

May 10, 2012

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 9:33 am

As I work with more clients, I’m struck by the number who acknowledge that they don’t do a good job — or any job for that matter — orienting new board members.

They acknowledge it’s a mistake, but seldom does that change.  For many of them, the task seems daunting.

Yet, it shouldn’t.  A board member orientation isn’t rocket science.

Here’s my quickie guide.

When a new person joins your board, you should give them a packet of information about the organization and its current board.   A week or two later, you should then meet with them to develop a plan for their activities over their first year.

The New Board Member Information Packet should include:

  • An organizational fact sheet.
  • A list of board members with contact information.
  • A copy of the bylaws.
  • A copy of the current budget and most recent financial statements.
  • A copy of the strategic plan — if you don’t have one, that’s the subject of another blog posting.
  • A few examples of recent communication materials (e.g. last few issues of your newsletter, an annual report, etc.).
  • Upcoming board meeting dates

Then, a couple weeks later, hold the orientation meeting.  Don’t put it off if you want to create a culture from the start that your board involves active engagement.

Ideally, the orientation meeting includes both the Executive  Director and a board chair or board development committee chair.  But the Executive Director should do this alone if their board leadership isn’t able or ready to participate.

If you have two board members start at the same time, it’s okay to orient them at the same time.

Then, for the board orientation meeting, you should:

  • Get to know them more as an individual.  The quality of personal relationships matters — take the opportunity to build them during one-on-one or two-on-one meetings.
  • See what questions they have, particularly related to the strategic plan.  It’s as important for them to understand the why of the strategy as the specifics of your program.
  • Walk them through the budget and financial statements — make sure they understand your current financial situation and how you report on your finances.
  • Develop objectives for their participation in their first year.  These objectives should include: a decision on which committee(s) to join and their fundraising goal for the year.  If they want to hold off on picking a committee for a couple of meetings, that’s okay — but then put it on your calendar to circle back to them when the time is appropriate.

Some of this may have already been covered, of course, in a board recruitment meeting.  But don’t hesitate to repeat yourself a bit.  My wife often has to repeat herself several times before I remember something.   Don’t assume new board members will remember everything you’ve told them — particularly if it’s one fact that came up at a board recruitment meeting.

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Good telephone board meetings

April 6, 2012

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 10:30 am

I previously wrote about how not to run a board meeting.

That post presumed it was an in-person meeting.

What about telephone meetings?

Occasionally, boards must meet by phone either because of geographic challenges or urgency.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Do have a very clear agenda with decision points.  A phone meeting should ideally be no more than one hour and shouldn’t be overpacked with agenda items.  Even better if you can keep the meeting agenda to 30-45 minutes.
  • Do a reality check before the meeting with board members to identify if any of the issues are likely to be contentious.  Unless absolutely necessary, contentious issues should be moved to a meeting that will be in-person instead of via phone.  And if you do have a contentious issue, consider making that the sole agenda item so it doesn’t have to be rushed.
  • Do have a good conference phone system, so that people can hear and avoid background noise.
  • Do share any supporting material before hand
  • Do have a strong facilitator who keeps the agenda on time, but also goes out of the way to make sure that people participate.  Silence should not be taken as assent,  but rather assent/opinions should be more affirmatively sought out by a facilitator, even if that means randomly calling on participants to let us know what they think if a question is asked and silence ensues.
  • Another idea for getting people to participate is to develop assignments in setting up the agenda so it’s not only the chair/staff who’re presenting items or framing them for discussion.
  • Do be clear about any action items/assignments coming out of the meeting.
  • Unless the group knows each other very well, encourage those talking to say their name the first several times they speak during the call so that people will come to know their voice.
  • If several people are gathered in one room and then a handful are on the phone, assign somebody the role of speaking up for the sentiment in the room (e.g. making comments like, “everyone here in the room is nodding their head yes.”).
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How Not to Run a Board Meeting

March 15, 2012

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 10:48 am

I recently observed two of my pet peeves about board meetings in the same meeting.

1. Orally report on past activities, when there was plenty of time to put the report in writing.

2. Framing broad general subjects, rather than specific decisions.

What’s wrong with both.

Let’s start with orally reporting what you could put in writing ahead of time.  This is just a poor use of time.  Your board’s time is one of your most precious resources.  And your board’s time in the same place is even more precious.

The vast majority of people can absorb information quicker reading.  Listening to one person share orally not only wastes time of those who could absorb the information quicker by reading, but it squanders the time your board has to do its most important job: govern.  Governing takes conversation.

What about selecting topics, instead of questions, for board deliberation?  This is perhaps an even bigger time sink.  Adding topics to a board meeting just because it’s always on the agenda is not a reason to schedule an item for the agenda.  And even if it is, you need to give your board some decision or options around which to frame the conversation, or it will be meander.

The conversation I recently witnessed went off in five different directions not just because the board chair didn’t intervene to keep it on a single topic, but because the board chair had no guidance for how to do so since the agenda item was set up as a topic, instead of a decision.

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