Commentary: 10 ways to energize your board in 2013

Debra Beck, Laramie Board Learning Project blog, 1/10/13

(1) Board gifts - Take stock of the gifts your members already bring to the boardroom table. Take the time to appreciate those gifts, to show that they are valued and that they make a difference, on a regular basis. Use them as the foundation for building board capacity.
(2) Board learning - You have three types of board development needs: about your mission, about your organization, and about governance in general. Identify at least one topic in each area for special focus, and build a board development plan around those needs. Setting aside time for shared expertise by peers isn't a meeting distraction; it's part of governing and capacity building.
(3) Board mission -
Take time to articulate a common understanding of unique contributions you bring to your organization. How does your collective leadership impact not only your nonprofit but your community? The most important outcome is the conversation: the consensus and clarity that (hopefully) emerge. Put your purpose into words -- then use it as an extra reminder to stay focused on the governance work that only you can do.
(4) Board outreach - Make this the year that board members embrace their role as community ambassadors. Identify goals [and] don't let them proceed without clarity about why they are reaching out, and access to the resources they need to succeed. Remind them that engagement is a two-way process: it's as important to listen (and share what they learn) as it is to speak.
(5) Board storytelling -
Expand your board's toolbox (and understanding) via storytelling. Offer examples that illustrate your impact on the community that board members can in turn share with others. Give them the chance to describe their experiences as volunteers and leaders and to practice conveying them to others. Make your mission about more than numbers.
(6) Board reflective practice - It begins with self-assessment. Accept it as a rich opportunity to learn about both your strengths and your growth areas as individual members and as a collective. Build formal assessment into your board calendar, commit to undertaking that work, and to learning from what emerges.
(7) Board committee empowerment - [Give board] committees big, governance-focused goals that keep the board focused on its larger leadership responsibilities. Empower them to do the deeper research and become our peer experts on their assigned area. Charge them with educating the board as a whole and facilitating discussion in advance of decisions made. Increase their work's value to the board's governance responsibilities.
(8) Board generative thinking - Identify the questions that will drive your organization's mission and the board's work, early enough to engage in creative thinking that shapes the discussions and the options available while they still matter. Schedule board retreats focused on big questions (and make emerging with more questions an acceptable - even desirable - outcome).
(9) Board/CEO relationship - Have that discussion you've probably been avoiding. Talk to your CEO about your joint leadership responsibilities. Have open conversations about what you need from each other to succeed, about what's working and what's problematic, and about what's needed to lead your nonprofit into the future it is intended to fulfill.
(10) Board meeting agendas - Finally, if you commit to only one action to enhance your board's effectiveness, this should be the one. Clear your agendas of long, mind-numbing reports. Move routine activities to a consent agenda, where they can be handled via a single vote. Put the time that all of that opens up to good use: learning, discussing, exploring and governing.


Commentary: What do you talk about at your nonprofit's board meetings?

Simone Joyaux, Nonprofit Quarterly, 1/4/13

Oh please! You can read reports. Don't waste time reviewing reports -- unless it's a precursor to an important conversation. Instead, design board meetings for strategic conversation about important items. Handle routine matters quickly. Put the most important items at the top of the agenda. Provide adequate background information in advance of the meeting so that people come prepared. Don't talk about management stuff. You must talk about governance - do governance - at board meetings. That isn't negotiable. And if you distract yourself with non-governance items at your governance meeting, that's a mess. How does a board ensure the staff is telling the board everything that matters? How does a board ensure that the staff isn't hiding important things? Maybe you add "red flags" to the end of each agenda. The board [asks] staff if there is anything that might cause public embarrassment or threaten beneficiaries or programs or mission. Board members probe without suspicion or insult. Board members and staff together - especially the CEO - identify a series of strategic and cage-rattling questions that can help anticipate and avoid red flags and rusty nails. How about these questions for periodic board meeting agendas?

  1. How is our adaptive capacity?
  2. How are we foreseeing the unforeseeable?
  3. How effectively do we recognize, anticipate, prepare for, respond to different situations?
  4. How effectively do we anticipate unintended consequences?
  5. What might have once been inconceivable - but now seems it might become inevitable?
  6. What is of concern that, if we don't address it, can become alarming?

One final thought. Do not provide extra copies of materials at meetings. Expect -- insist -- your board members come prepared, with their materials in hand. Advance preparation is essential for effective meetings. If your board members went to a meeting at work without being prepared, what would happen? More information on the role of the board, a due diligence plan for how the board carries out that role at its meetings, and strategic conversation can be found here.


Commentary: 9 ideas to deal with board micromanagement

Barry Hessenius, WESTAF Blog, 1/6/13

One of the most frequent complaints of Executive Directors is the issue of micromanagement -- the tendency of Boards to want to look over the shoulder of the chief executive and do his/her job (and often staff member's jobs too) themselves. There are any number of reasons a Board tilts towards micromanagement as a default way to run their organizations. [But] what is to be done?


  1. The Board Chair is the critical point person in this issue.  It is their responsibility to insure Board members do not overly micromanage and that CEOs and staffs are allowed to do what they were hired to do.  If the Board Chair does not fully understand or appreciate that role, or if s/he does not perform that function, it may be advisable to bring in some outside coach or other resource that will help the Board Chair (and the CEO) to clarify their roles and responsibilities.    
  2. It is essential for the Board to have a clear, written policy as to who is responsible for what, and to periodically revisit that policy to clarify and remind the whole Board of what is expected of them and where the boundaries lie.  CEOs should be extremely wary of taking any position in an organization that does not embrace this kind of policy. Funders should insist that such a written policy exist.  
  3. Boards need to be encouraged to lead as their principal function, not to manage. Outside input as to why and how that best works may be advantageous. 
  4. Dialogue within the organization should always be about the impact that any given policy (or disregard thereof) has on the organization.  Depersonalizing the issue is essential in getting all sides to see that impact.  It is better to talk about the organization than about specific personalities.
  5. A periodic inventory of how the Board spends its time may be instructive.  How much time does the Board spend second guessing or actually performing what are logically staff functions v. how much time is spent on financial oversight and big picture issues that affect success at achieving the organization's mission.  
  6. Planning - long term strategic planning and even short term specific programmatic or operational planning may afford the Board an ultimately more satisfying way to channel their involvement and offer clearly delineated lines of authority.  
  7. Board members should be encouraged to share with the Chair and CEO their concerns and fears as a way of dealing with confusion over how they can best contribute.  
  8. Staff / Board retreats may allow for the airing of grievances and concerns by both groups in a relatively non-threatening way.  There should be some mechanism by which CEOs and staff can bring their issues to the table.
  9. Board term limits and rotating committee assignments, meaningful and comprehensive orientation protocols for new board members, and periodic review of Board member performance are all essential to stemming the tide of micromanagement. 
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