Board Development Should Not Be an “Add-On”
The board is critical to effective strategy formation and implementation, yet board development often takes a back seat when it comes to nonprofits’ organizational development priorities. As we begin working with organizations on strategy or other significant change processes, it is not uncommon for the board chair or CEO to say to us “actually, we could probably use some improvement in how our board functions.” Although some organizations have a clear understanding of their governance needs from the outset and are prepared to make this an integrated part of the consulting project, others don’t seem to recognize its importance until the work is underway, as a kind of afterthought.
We have worked with a number of nonprofits that, during a strategy development process, determine that the current board composition, structure, or functioning either has some level of dysfunction or is simply not a good match to support the new strategy.
Take, for example, the environmental organization whose board had been built over the years based on personal relationships with the founder. The board members, most of them long-time conservationists, were well-intentioned and had strong content expertise, but they were not functioning as an effective board. Their idea of governance was to help develop programs, not to guide the organization. Faced with the task of strategy development, individual board members showed greater concern for ensuring their personal role in the program rather than looking to the organization’s future direction. Ultimately, the executive director championed an organizational strategy that was approved by the board, but she must now help her board to “get on track” with the overall strategy.
Board development can equip organizations with insights and approaches to assess the strengths of the board, identify gaps, and prioritize recruitment, training, and board leadership development needs. It is also useful for examining the relationship between the board and executive leadership, which is critical to setting and pursuing organizational strategy. Board development can help boards better understand their role in supporting strategy; it can also help staff leadership build skills in how to effectively involve their board at a strategic level.
What can organizations do to ensure the board is ready to develop and implement a new strategy?
- Prioritize board development. Board members, like your staff, need ongoing opportunities to hone their skills and gain new perspectives. Recruiting board members with business expertise does not necessarily mean they know how to translate their knowledge to a nonprofit board. Especially as the organization grows and its needs evolve, it is important to periodically discuss and understand what your board needs in terms of training and learning opportunities.
- Align board development with strategy. Organizational strategy should guide how priorities are set, how resources are allocated, and how capacity is built. For example, if your strategy is to expand outreach to Latinos, it would serve you to not only have Latino board members, but to help the whole board understand the needs of this population. In short, board development–composition, education, etc.–should match the organizational strategy.
- Engage the board in strategic conversations. Often, board members spend much of their time together listening to reports from staff and committees. Granted, this can be an important part of their duties, but they also need ongoing opportunities to discuss new business and to think strategically about the overall direction of the organization. This strategic orientation allows nonprofits to get the most value from their boards, and also provides board members with a more satisfying sense of engagement and contribution.
Board development needs are often surfaced in the course of a strategy process, but should not be left to the last minute as an afterthought or add-on. Considering your board’s development needs well before taking on a strategy development or other organizational change effort is a smart first step.