Dani Robbins is the Founder & Principal Strategist at Non Profit Evolution located in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve invited my good friend and fellow non-profit consultant to the first Wednesday of each month about board development related topics. Dani also recently co-authored a book titled “Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives” that you can find on Amazon.com.
There are some very high-profile and high functioning Boards on which community leaders serve with distinction. There are other high-profile yet lower functioning Boards on which people serve because they believe in the mission and it’s also good for their company, career or ego. It’s hard to tell which is which, and it may even be hard to decide which you want.
High profile Boards where nothing strategic is happening but everything is basically fine may be enough for you. Then again, it may not. Even if it is, “basically fine” is hard to qualify. How do you know?
If you are invited to serve on the Board of a respected community organization, the best – and really only – way I know to find out what type of board it is, is to ask lots of questions. Those questions include asking about a typical meeting, about the agenda, topics covered and the quality and quantity discussions; about the CEO and how he or she operates.
- Is it a yes Board or a working board?
- Is it a Board whose meetings include generative and strategic discussions or one that solely focuses on its fiduciary responsibilities?
- Does the organization have a vision of where they’d like to be at some specified point in the future?
- Are there organizational values?
- Do they align with your values?
- Is there a strategic plan?
- Are there goals the CEO is working toward?
- What are they and by who were they set?
The answers will tell you a lot.
If a typical meeting has no written agenda, you know going in that conversation is likely to wander off topic.
If the meeting is described as primarily votes and committee reports with approvals to follow or the vote being tabled until the discussion at hand is taken up by the committee, with others invited to attend, you know there is a Chair who knows how to run a meeting and who is also running a primarily fiduciary focused Board.
If there are robust discussions that challenge the status quo, decisions that move forward the organization’s vision and generative discussions that consider all constituent groups’ positions, you have a Board that is fiduciary, strategic and generative.
Alternatively, if there is very little discussion, you may have a high-profile but lower functioning Board. Further evidence of this will be if there are no organizational values, no vision, no strategic plan and if the goals were set by the CEO for the CEO.
The CEO’s goals are usually tied to the Board approved strategic plan. In the absence of a plan, the Board sets the CEOs goals and evaluates the CEO based on the accomplishment of those goals. CEOs that set their own goals without any Board input also tend to set the direction for the Board, both signs of a lower functioning board and also an indication of boundary issues. Other evidence of boundary issues, though on the other side, includes Board meeting topics that are operational in nature.
Boundary issues mean the Board acts on things traditionally done by the CEO, and the CEO performs duties traditional completed by the Board. The combination creates a lower functioning Board that, high-profile or not, may not meet your Board service goals or its governance responsibilities.
As described in a previous post The Role of the Board, “the Board is responsible for governance, which includes Mission, Vision and Strategic Planning; Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director; acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent, setting Policy and Raising Money. Boundary creep makes the accomplishment of governance responsibilities challenging, which in turn compromise the achievement of high functioning.”
Of course, high functioning and high profile Boards are not the only options. The opposites, low profile and low functioning, are quite prevalent and also easier to spot.
Like anything, it’s important to know what you want out of your Board service before you determine the Board that is right for you to serve. High profile doesn’t necessarily beget high functioning. What’s right for you?