Updated: Sep 30, 2021
At times of governance crisis (sudden departure of a CEO, major change in direction, significant parent discontent etc.) a criticism regularly levelled at boards by stakeholders is that they are “faceless” men and women disconnected from the real not-for-profit organisational community. Not much is known of what they do from month to month, and in most organisatons you would be hard pressed if you asked a staff member who was on the board to get a response beyond one or maybe two people (and usually only the name of the Chair).
We all want Board members committed to the organisation to serve as Board members on our boards. Depending on your governance structure, new Board members are elected or appointed to your board from a range of sources – company members, sponsoring church members or leaders, parents, diocesan personnel, staff, past beneficiaries etc. But here’s the problem – in our pursuit of best practice governance processes our boards have often become disconnected with the communities in which they serve – in their quest to let management manage and the board govern they have, at the one end of the pendulum, abdicated rather than delegated the authority and responsibility of operating the organisation to the professional staff.
This is usually done with the best intentions – the CEO and senior staff are the professionals after all – dedicated professionals who invest many hours in running and thinking about the organisation. This situation has often come about in reaction to organisation’s finding themselves at the other end of the pendulum – the situation where a board has been micromanaging the organisation and senior staff (an unsustainable model as organisations grow and become more complex) and seek to move to governance to allow management to lead the day to day operations.
Have we have thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater in our quest for best practice governance, and is now the time for boards to examine more strategically how they are engaging with the organisational community as a whole? I think so. In our work with not-for-profits we see boards at all different places on the governance spectrum – with the “hands on” management board at one end of the spectrum, and “hands off” abdicating boards at the opposite end. Meeting in the middle, what can boards do to ensure that balance is maintained in engagement with organisational community. How should boards engage with their communities in a healthy way? Here are a few examples:
Renovate your Annual General Meeting and transform this from being a dry affair focussing on financial statement approval to a major annual event celebrating the results of the organisational strategic plan wins. Have beneficiaries and personnel share with moral owners what the year and the organisation means to them – help give a face to the board in terms of reporting on what the longer term vision and mission of the organisation is to the community. This could be followed by a more formal part of the meeting where members or moral owners elect directors and approve financial statements etc.
Implement a community sentiment survey. This is a great way for boards to connect with the community. We recommend to clients that an organisation link a sentiment survey with their strategic planning cycle – so that every 3 to 5 years the board gets a snapshot of sentiment from the entire organisational community. This provides valuable information that can be tracked over successive strategic plans, and forms the basis for some much needed non financial key performance indicators to help measure the performance of the organisation and its leadership.
Give board members some profile within the organisation. In some not-for-profits there is a great practice where individual board members are rostered during the year to come and present something to a staff meeting. This might be simply an interview out the front by the CEO of the board member, or the board member leading staff devotions or, for example in schools, presenting awards at a school assembly or church service. Don’t just limit all your board face time to the Chair – give them a break from the limelight and get your other board members involved in the organisation so that they can connect to the community.
It is important that your board knows it’s role is to govern the organisation. Inviting the board to connect more with your organisation’s community can be dangerous if the board and management are unclear about this. We recommend that the board has in place clear board policy around the distinction between their governance role and the role of management in the organisation. This will help to ensure that your board members involvement in your organisation stays healthy and a positive experience for both the board member and the organisation.