Key Elements to a High Performing Board

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Recruiting and cultivating a high performing board can be of paramount importance for a successfully run organization. Active board members who possess knowledge and passion can truly be an organization’s biggest asset. But this crucial element of an organization’s ecosystem is often woefully undermanaged and, as a result, can be an underutilized resource, and at worst a liability. So what does a high performing board actually look like?

Schaffer&Combs Managing Partner James Lee recently spoke to that very question at the Nonprofit Boot Camp in San Francisco, a day-long conference that covers myriad nonprofit management topics designed to give nonprofit leaders hands-on tips and tools to make them more effective. How to identify, cultivate, develop and manage a high performing board was included among the sessions as it is something many organizations struggle with. In the succinct Twitter-meets-TED-style that was signature to the conference, James made clear that the most important features of a high performing board don’t have to be defined by such daunting subjects like audits and governance. Yawn. What really matters in setting up a board for maximum success can be broken down into some pretty digestible morsels.

First among the features of a high performing board is diversity. Managers should seek to recruit a diverse board with a range of professional experience, geographic locations, and knowledge in the field. Members should have experience across industries and functions – experience in only one type of industry or function can lead to stagnation and lack of perspective – and they should bring both insider knowledge as well as outside perspective. Additionally, members should possess different levels of professional maturity. A board composed of members who are all either at the start of their careers, no matter how enthusiastic and ‘up’ on the latest trends, or veterans in their fields, no matter how deeply knowledgeable and experienced, can cause tunnel vision. And finally, a diverse board should include members who live and work in a range of locations. Geographic diversity translates into having members who can connect an organization to resources that perhaps aren’t available, or at least as readily available, close to home, as well as the ability to see things from distinct world views.

Secondly, turnover is a good thing. It’s healthy. Yes, it can be unsettling and feel as if a board is starting from scratch each time a member steps down, but in reality, turnover avoids burn out and keeps a board innovative and up-to-speed on next practices. It’s important to set term limits for members so there are clear boundaries as to how long members are expected to serve and that, in turn, signal performance expectations for that discrete time frame. In other words, members won’t have forever to figure things out; they are expected to bring their game on pretty quickly.

Flying at the right altitude is also important for a board. Whether members are recruited for their skills or dollars really depends on the stage at which the organization finds itself. Is the organization establishing itself, more clearly defining its mission and charting its path, or is it at a point where its needs are more heavily weighted towards bringing in funding and connecting with ‘heavy hitters’? This is a crucial distinction for identifying the type of members to recruit. Defining the correct altitude for board engagement also helps with both alignment (the ability to see the same thing from different perspectives), and consensus (or collective decision making).

Along those lines, identifying and acknowledging the growth stage of an organization will help it evolve organically. The board should evolve as the organization does, in step with its current needs, not where it was at the last strategic planning phase or where it hopes to be five years from now. The four phases of growth can be broken down into 1) startup, 2) operating, 3) governance, and 4) fundraising. In the initial startup phase, a board often consists of the founders, friends of the founders, and funders. There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact the startup phase is often when a board is most invested in an organization’s success because it’s ‘make it or break it’ time. It’s a period of passion and energy. But it’s also a phase that needs to mature into a more established skills-based board, focused on fine-tuning the systems and operations of the organization. Governance comes next, and that is when members hash out best practices with regards to duties and responsibilities: what is the organizational structure with regards to leadership, staffing, and yes, the board of directors, that makes the organization hum? These rules and procedures may not be sexy but they are crucially important for the governance phase. Finally, there’s the fundraising phase. This is a good place to be, though it’s often the most difficult. At this point, an organization has survived most of its growing pains and finds itself needing to establish its funding base in order to grow and scale. It’s when board members with connections to funders with deep pockets, either their own or through their network, can determine the longer-term fiscal health of an organization.

The next trait of a high performing board is being able to recognize the distinction between internal and external responsibilities. It’s helpful to pose the question, “What does our board do that is internally and externally facing?” These tasks can be accomplished through standing committees and more temporary task forces focused on specific topics, both ever-green and opportunistic.  Some activities are both internal and external, but the important thing is to align individual and collective time and effort with specific deliverables that match the skills and interest of members in order to accomplish specific objectives.

Establishing a clear value proposition for members is also key in developing and managing a high performing board. People join boards often for very specific reasons, ranging from raw passion for the mission, to networking opportunities, to professional prestige and resume building. It’s important to know the reasons why members joined and define what we can do for them by engaging them on multiple levels. It’s not enough to expect them to serve as a simple cash machine. Rather, define the value they get out of being a part of the board and be sure to communicate that clearly. And say thank you early and often.

Expectations can be a murky pool regarding board involvement, and the sooner members know what is expected of them, the better. This serves both to avoid misalignment as well as ideally enhance loyalty and performance. So creating clear expectations in key areas such as the time members are expected to commit, the money they should contribute – which doesn’t have to be straight giving, but can be through a give-or-get policy – and what defines their successful participation is important. Board contracts or job descriptions are one method for avoiding awkward conversations. But either way, don’t be scared to be clear with members; they will appreciate not having to deal in guesswork.

Finally, defining the “Why, What and How” of a board are vital in ensuring the board is a strong asset. The Why sustains a board’s commitment by allowing members to come to a consensus regarding the goals and vision for an organization, and by determining what resources and strategy to utilize in order to reach those stated objectives. The Why is the underpinning for the What, which guides a board in its duties. This includes clarifying core values, professional practices and key factors for success. Assessment is also important in the What – taking a true look at strengths and weaknesses – and agreeing on criteria for recruiting board and staff. The third element, How, creates a roadmap for achieving alignment and consensus; in other words, what is the path to ensuring all members are on the same page in moving forward to the common goals and vision previously set forth.

Implementing these key strategies can translate into a high performing board, which means members work in harmony with the organization, helping it meet its goals and carry out its mission. That is a powerful foundation of support, and one that is too often underutilized or managed poorly. By managing this key asset effectively, however, the sky can be the limit with regards to efficiency and ultimate success.




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