Walk and Talk

The relationship between a nonprofit’s executive director and board chair sets the stage for the effectiveness and energy of the organization.

What are the most important characteristics of a good working relationship between a nonprofit’s executive director and its board chair? Communication, trust, and candor.

Executive leaders and board chairs can attain their most productive levels of management and governance by regularly and honestly assessing the current status of the organization, by deeply understanding their roles and responsibilities, by respecting the guidelines of best practices, and by working on those three qualities of communication, trust, and candor.

To develop those strengths, first understand how organizations and boards grow and change. (Watch for an upcoming CP Connector article on the stages of board development.) To determine where your organization stands in the lifecycle of boards, ask yourselves if board members:

  • offer their own program ideas?
  • focus on day-to-day operations of the nonprofit?
  • recruit new board members?
  • act as philanthropic leaders?

With an understanding of where your organization is in the board lifecycle, begin to hone the roles and responsibilities of the executive leader and the board.

The executive director/chief executive office is responsible for:

  • overseeing day-to-day operation of the organization
  • developing programming
  • creating a budget with input from the board
  • overseeing marketing and communications

The board chair guides the work of the board to:

  • determine strategic direction
  • hire the ED/CEO and delegate operations
  • provide oversight (legal, financial, and managerial) and set policies
  • partner with ED and staff to raise funds to actualize the strategic plan
  • serve as passionate ambassadors for the nonprofit’s mission and vision

The board chair also takes on the responsibility for evaluating the executive and for leading the board’s self-evaluation. Far from being onerous, these are critical opportunities to reflect on the health and well-being of the organization and the relationships between executive leaders and their boards.

Clarity about the development stage of the board and about roles and responsibilities provides the groundwork for strong communication, trust, and candor. These qualities may emerge naturally if there is already a good fit. But usually they must be developed intentionally through purposeful outreach and communication:

  • Some EDs report talking to board chairs several times a week, or meeting once a month at a favorite café, or local lunch spot, or scheduling regular walking meetings à la Steve Jobs (exercise the brain and body).
  • Whether you are an ED or board chair, consider meeting one-on-one with other board members.
  • Make sure board documents to or from the ED are accurate to avoid misunderstanding or embarrassment.
  • Choose the right timing for conversations—what days or times offer the most relaxed and open interactions?
  • Institute a clear orientation process for a new ED and for board members to give new people a sense of the lay of the land and to clarify expectations.
  • Commit to a culture of “no surprises” to develop open and honest communication.

The ED and board chair create the best balance in their work for the organization when they can communicate openly and honestly and embrace their shared leadership. So, next time you have a chance, take a walk and talk.

If you’d like to talk to Capacity Partners about a board development, please don’t hesitate to email Margo Reid at margo@capacitypartners.com


Three Ways to Get Your Board Composition Right

Do you wonder what is the right composition for your board, the configuration that will have the expertise, abilities, and skills to create a well-functioning board? Planning your board composition in a deliberate way is a tenet of exceptional nonprofit management.  But how to do it?

The first key is the Board Skills Matrix. A skills grid is a valuable tool for identifying the necessary board member skills for your nonprofit. (Click here to email me to receive a sample Matrix.) The board matrix will:

  • Determine the board skills your nonprofit requires to be successful
  • Determine the skills of your current board members
  • See where the gaps are

But what skills does your board need? Some of the typical skills include Finance, Technology, Leadership, Fundraising, Legal, Strategic Planning, Governance, and Risk Management. What other skills might your board need to be successful? Consider what you hope to accomplish in the next 5 years and what board skills might help you get there. Will you need help with Human Resource Management, Property Management, Marketing, or Grant writing? Your specific Board Matrix should help you focus your recruiting efforts on the necessary skill sets.

While a Board Matrix is a highly useful guiding document, it should not be your only consideration. The second key to an effective board is ensuring board members have:

  • Passion for the cause
  • Respect for others
  • Thoughtful ability to consider issues, articulate those thoughts, and ask pertinent questions
  • Sense of responsibility for making things happen
  • Vision to think beyond today

Third, confirm that potential board candidates:

  • Have the right cultural fit
  • Add value to the current board composition
  • Are able to align their skills with the strategic direction of the nonprofit
  • Possess the right experience within their field
  • Represent diversity of all kinds – racial, geographic, religious, gender, profession, age, etc.

With thoughtful planning and focused implementation, your board of directors can posses the critical talents to partner with your chief executive and lead your nonprofit to excellence.


How do you know when you’re ready to do a strategic plan?

Perhaps you and your board have decided your organization needs a new strategic plan. But how do you know if you’re ready to embark on the strategic plan process?  Before you hire that consultant to help you develop a bold yet achievable strategic plan, make sure your key stakeholders – board, staff, and volunteers – have answered these questions.

  1. Is your organization in a state of crisis?  If so, you must deal with the crisis before developing your strategic plan so you have the required mental space and staff time to allow all of you to consider the deeper issues of where it is heading.
  2. Are key board leaders relatively stable?  If your board officers are in transition, it might be wise to wait until they are comfortable in their new roles.
  3. Is the executive director planning to stay?  Are there minimal issues with your CEO? While an organization can do strategic planning without an executive director – and sometimes does, to assess direction and determine the right CEO to hire–for a complete strategic planning process, it is best to have on board the person who will lead the execution of the plan, which is nearly always the executive director.
  4. Do board and staff have time to plan?  While no one has enough time these days, meaningful strategic planning requires a time commitment of at least a half to full day a month for three to six months. The chair of the strategic planning committee and the executive director must dedicate even more time.  Many small nonprofits hope do the impossible – complete a strategic plan in a single half-day planning session, something that’s generally neither wise nor useful.
  5. Do you have someone willing to make the time and energy commitment to chair the strategic planning committee?  It is too much to expect board chair to lead this process while handling their other responsibilities.
  6. Do you want a board or staff-drive process, or some combination of the two? Very small nonprofits tend to choose a board-driven strategic planning process while large organizations with staff members who bring special expertise are often staff-driven. Either way, the board still owns the responsibility for setting the strategic direction, so the board must take the lead on the foundational elements of developing your mission/vision and values as well as setting the strategic direction and goals. Staff can help tremendously with the current situation analysis and creating strategy and implementation plans.
  7. What kind of consultant do you want – a partner to guide you through the entire process, or a facilitator with your team doing most of the work? It is important to interview different consultants and so that your needs match with the consultant’s style.

If you’d like to learn if your organization is ready for a strategic plan, or if you’re ready to start the planning process, call Capacity Partners at 240-462-5151 to learn if our team of experts can help you decide if you are ready to proceed and then discuss next steps with you.


Board Committees Lighten the Load

Nonprofit boards can easily be overwhelmed from their responsibilities. As fiduciaries for the organization they are responsible for the strategic mission and financial health of the nonprofit. Oversight and challenges associated with any growing enterprise only adds to the load. Often, for small organizations with little or no staff, the board also functions as day-to-day managers. One way that boards can effectively and efficiently address their long list of tasks is through a well-defined committee structure.

Committees allow a subset of the board to focus their skill and time on specific issues. Well-structured committees, which spend time working through specific issues and developing recommendations to the whole board help the entire board make more robust decisions in a timelier manner. Committees can include non-board members recruited for their expertise, acting as a pipeline for future board members. In addition, a strong Executive Committee that shares the leadership responsibilities encourages people to take on the role of Chair.

Committees work best when they:

  • Have concise charters laying out responsibilities
  • Have a strong committee chair, who encourages all members to participate fully
  • Have members who are willing to commit the time needed to complete the necessary work
  • Frequently report in to the board as a whole, so they do not feel they are working in isolation
  • Understand their role is to advise and recommend, not make the final decisions
  • Build into the structure a process by which to measure their success

 

There are three types of committees that boards can consider when looking to build a stronger governance model.

1) Standing Committees (also called Operating Committees.) These are committees that an organization uses on a continual basis. They can be set forth in the organization’s bylaws or in its board operations and policy manual, or they may be established by custom. According to Board Source’s Leading with Intent 2017, the most common standing board committees are finance, executive, fundraising/development, and governance, nominating, or governance and nominating.

2) Ad Hoc Committees. These are formed for a limited period of time to address a specific need. When the work of the ad hoc committee is completed, the committee is dissolved. This type of committee can be used to support capital improvement projects, leadership transition, and strategic planning.

3) Task Force. If there is an objective that can be achieved in a relatively short period of time, such as special events planning or analyzing a proposed merger, task forces can help achieve that goal.

Capacity Partners, Inc. has experienced consultants who can help guide your board in developing its structure and ensuring its governance approach reflects time-tested best practices. Contact us at 240-462-5151 to ask how we can help your board be its best.


5 Ways to Improve Your Board Meetings

The most important contributions your board members make to your nonprofit will be at the board meetings.

The best board meetings engage the board members and allow for robust discussion and decisions on strategic issues. To improve your meetings, consider implementing these five best practices:

1. Use name tent cards for everyone at every meeting.

You may think everyone knows everyone’s name, but they don’t, or they forget..….so make it easy! The tent cards can also be used to “assign” seating, so board members have the opportunity to sit next to different people at each meeting.

2. Develop an acronym chart.

Make a chart of frequently used acronyms and include it in the board package for each meeting and/or make a poster of the most frequently used acronyms and have it displayed at all board meetings.

3. Use a consent agenda.

Place committee reports/minutes that usually don’t require further discussion on the agenda for consent approval. These minutes/reports will be in the board packet for review by the board members. The board members will still have the opportunity to ask questions, if any, and the board will have more time for items that need discussion.

4. Reduce one-way communication from staff.

Be sure that all staff reports to the board need a response from the board at the meeting. If not, the written report should be in the board package for review and board members can ask questions, if they have any.

5. Conduct board meeting evaluations.

At least once a year, ask your board members to provide feedback on your board meetings. This can be in electronic format or a simple one page grid with 10 or fewer questions. You might want to obtain feedback on topics such as: quality of board packages, effective use of meeting time, clear agenda, board participation in discussion, and focusing on most important topics.

This post originally appeared in the Nonprofit Village newsletter.


5 More Tips for Running Efficient Board Meetings

The best board meetings engage board members, allowing for robust discussion and decisive action.

In a recent blog post, I shared five tips for improving your board meetings. Here are five more ways to make meetings efficient and effective.

1. Write an anticipated action for each agenda item.

This helps board members know what is expected for each agenda item so they can be better engaged and prepared. For example, “Investment Committee Report – Q & A, no action needed” or “Governance Committee Report – approve new committee charters.”

2. Include at least one of the most important issues facing the organization on the agenda.

What major issues is your organization facing? (e.g., economic downturn, funding, demographic changes, competitors?) Be sure to structure your agenda to include time to discuss one of these issues at each meeting.

3. Develop a culture of respectful dissent and authentic disagreements.

Find opportunities to promote this culture at each meeting by recognizing those board members who provide a different view. For example: “Roger, I appreciate that you disagreed with my opinion in the last discussion. Your perspective made the discussion much more valuable.”

4. Begin on time and finish on time.

Board members are busy people and you want to respect everyone’s time. Set the standard that the meetings start on time. If you are running late with the agenda, you can ask if everyone is able to stay an extra 15 minutes. If everyone agrees then extend; if not, move the most critical agenda items up on the agenda to be sure they are covered.

5. Encourage everyone to contribute at each meeting.

This is the responsibility of the board chair, but all board members can help. If someone is being quiet, you might ask a question, such as “Melissa, we haven’t heard form you on this issue, do you have anything to add to the discussion?” or “Steve, you made some great points at our last meeting about the strategic plan. Is there anything we are overlooking from a strategic standpoint in this discussion?

I know that these five tips – along with the first five – will help you improve your board meetings.

Do you have other tips for running efficient, effective board meetings? Share your thoughts in the comments!