How to Grow an Award Winning Board

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HAS YOUR BOARD BECOME A CLUB? Seriously, do most of your board members have many, many years of service? Have your board meetings become nice, pleasant, almost social affairs where you all sit around and “tell old tales”, do a little business and listen politely to the executive director who reassures you all once again that all is well with the organization? And has the organization remained the same old comfortable organization that it was many years ago when you first joined the board?

Unhappily, there are still too many boards around like this, in charge of organizations that are simply holding the line at the same level of service of long ago. The most frequent cause of such a situation is the lack of sensible limits upon how long individual board members may serve. It is almost inevitable that if there are no limits, no system of board member rotation in place, the nominating committee will take the line of least resistance and simply repeat all of those board members for yet another, and another, term until the board becomes a social club bereft of the vigor that can only come by way of a regular infusion of some fresh blood.

This was the way it used to be in olden times, but over the past thirty years the trend has gone heavily towards setting limits upon how long board members can serve. Many boards today opt for a system of board member rotation built upon a principle of thirds. The board is divided into three roughly equal sized “classes”. One class is elected each year for a term of three years. Thus the full board is cycled every three years. A board member will serve for one three year term and is then eligible for re-election to a second three year term – if he or she has justified re-election by dint of good performance. However, after the second three year term, or after six consecutive years if the individual is filling out un-expired terms, board members must step down from the board for at least one full year.

Such a system requires the nominating committee, each year, to seek out some new members who will bring unspent energies, new perspectives and needed skills to the board. It is only by requiring the nominating committee to do this every year that we can be reasonably sure that our board does not turn into an ineffective club.

But rotation does have one problem. Many feel, and with good reason, that a system of rotation works against good board development. For example, what do you do when you have been fortunate enough to attract a truly outstanding member to your board – one who logically should become one of your top officers sooner or later? In many communities, where the competition for good board members can only be described as intense, to drop such a board member for the required one year is to risk losing that board member permanently. So much for leadership development!

Happily, there are three or four legitimate ways to maintain the involvement of outstanding people at the board level during that one year off. One method, involves the election of officers separately and not from among an already elected board. The second possibility is to make this outstanding person the chair of a committee (presuming, of course, that this person’s skills and the committee’s needs match) in which case he or she ought to attend board meetings as the committee chair. A third method, used by some Chambers of Commerce, is to have the chair of an important committee be appointed by the president, be approved by the board, and have the office of committee chair carry full board membership by virtue of the office. Finally, such a person could be asked to serve on one of the more important committees during the one year off, but he or she would no longer be operating at the board level and this, therefore, is the least effective route to take.

By intelligent use of one of these “escape routes” from the rotation requirement, you can have the best of both worlds – a board that is regularly reinvigorated as well as the opportunity to hold the involvement of a truly outstanding person. And if this selectivity in the case of outstanding individuals strikes you as elitist, to a degree it is. As in building any effective team – management team, baseball team, etc. – building an effective board is, and must be, a deliberately selective process.

APPOINTED BOARDS … HOW can we make them better? It is unfortunately a fact that many of the least effective governing boards are those that have been appointed. Such nonprofit agency boards are typically appointed by groups such as the membership or communities which receive services from the agency. This is an effort to make the board representative of the constituency served; but assembling a board in this way can create two serious problems.

The first is that appointing authorities rarely have a clear idea of the skills and other characteristics needed by the board in question. The board itself is often to blame for this lack of knowledge because such boards rarely communicate their needs adequately to the appointing authority; and the appointing authority all too frequently ends up making the most expedient appointment available.

The second problem involves the attempt to make the board representative. Governing board members must realize that their very first responsibility is to govern the organization in the best interests of all of the clientele served by the organization – not just those from the communities or organizations which appointed them. Unfortunately, board members appointed in this fashion tend to think of them-selves first as representatives of a constituency and/or region and only secondarily as members-of a governing board which must govern for everyone.

Effective boards must be deliberately assembled. A conscious effort must be made to identify the mix of characteristics which make up an optimum board in this organization. Then the selection process must be set up in such a way that every opportunity is available to secure the best possible choices. How then do we reconcile this requirement with a board whose members are appointed by authorities who are, typically, well outside of the immediate family?

It is a fact that appointing authorities will usually want to make the best possible appointments and will frequently accept guidance provided by the board in question when that guidance has evolved out of a well thought out process. There is no reason why your appointed board should not develop the Board Candidate Recommendation card which we discussed previously, as well as a Board Profile Grid. Your full board can use the card system to develop an inventory of likely candidates for future board membership. And a board development committee might be formed to work with the Board Profile Grid in order to determine what needed skills or other characteristics the board lacks which future board appointments might supply.

Using these tools, the board nominating committee should develop a list of recommended candidates (to be approved by the full, incumbent board) from the area represented by a specific appointing authority which must make an appointment to your board. This list should be presented to the appointing authority with biographical information and other data supporting the recommendations and with a request that the appointing authority choose from this list, or to at least consider this list when making the appointment.

Many Board members believe that “This won’t work – don’t you know its all political!” But many boards have tried and found to their great satisfaction that their suggestions were welcomed by the appointing authority. So do not simply assume that you cannot – until you try. The organization you serve needs the best board it can obtain. One of your responsibilities as a board member is to help build a better board for the future. If your board is an appointed board, don’t just sit back and assume that nothing can be done to improve the quality of your board. In most cases, something can be done – if someone will only make the effort.

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