Do you know what it takes to build a GREAT non-profit board of directors?

You may remember that around the turn of the century there was a rash of failures when it came to the idea of “board governance“. These failures emanated from the for-profit sector — WorldComm, Enron, and Tyco — but it got people asking an important question: “Does a board governance model still work in the 21st Century?” This question logically lead to the next question, which was “What does it take to build a more effective board of directors?
I stumbled upon an old article 2002 article from Jeffrey Sonnenfeld in the Harvard Business Review titled “What Makes Great Boards Great“. OMG! If you haven’t read this article, it is a MUST READ! While I’m going to hit a few of the highlights in today’s blog post, please trust me when I say this is worth the click.
structural
The usual suspects
How many times have you sat around a board development/governance committee table and talked about how to make your board work better?
I’ve been there more times than I care to admit, and it is almost as if Sonnenfeld was a fly on the wall in all of those meetings. In the first few pages of his article, he rattles off the list of things we’ve all talked about when discussing this issue.

  • Improving board attendance
  • Improving the committee system
  • Diversifying our board (esp. recruiting younger board members)
  • Focusing on board size and trying to right-size our board

We focus so much on structural best practices, and this never seems to get us any closer to a more functional board.
human elementThe human element
There is a pop-up quote in Sonnenfeld’s article that captures his thoughts on this subject perfectly:

“What distinguishes exemplary boards is that they are robust, effective social systems.”

Here are just a few suggestions he offers to those of you trying to build great boards:

  • Establish and use annual evaluation tools for both the organization and individual
  • Establish and use accountability tools
  • Encourage board members to constantly re-examine their roles
  • Foster a culture of open dissent
  • Create an organizational culture built on trust and candor

Each of these bullet points could be a blog post by itself. Luckily, Sonnenfeld does a nice job of elaborating on all of this in his article, which is why you really need to go read his article.
Rather than drill deeper, I’m going to throw it open to you and the other readers this morning. What are you doing to build a GREAT board? What do your evaluation and accountability tools look like? What are you doing to change organizational culture and foster respect, openness, trust, etc? What is working and what isn’t working at your agency? Please share your thoughts and experiences using the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.
Additionally, I strongly urge you to click-through and read the Sonnenfeld article in the Harvard Business Review. Sure, some of the for-profit stuff won’t apply to your non-profit agency, but much of it will. You won’t be disappointed.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
www.thehealthynonprofit.com 
erik@thehealthynonprofit.com
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2 comments

    1. Thanks, Jeff. It is funny that you commented on this post because I was thinking about you and Josh while writing it. I kept thinking about your efforts to meet periodically in that campus bar with board volunteers in an effort to socialize and relationship build.

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