Nonprofit board engagement

An article from the Association of Governing Boards came across my radar, and I’m sharing it here for two reasons. First, because I think it provides a framework for boards on how to create a culture where there is genuine engagement. Second, because it echoes many of weaknesses of the Penn State Board of Trustees leading up to the Sandusky scandal—you’ll get the full sense of this if you read the article. Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of Chicago’s DePaul University writes:

In 2004, a board-effectiveness study revealed broad dissatisfaction among the trustees that the board’s executive committee met two weeks before every single meeting and essentially predetermined the outcomes of the major decisions brought before the board. The study also revealed that the executive committee members themselves felt that the decisions were largely predetermined by the board’s chair and two vice chairs, who in turn felt the administration was choreographing the board leadership’s work.

When board members are disengaged, they’re not performing their function. Whether a board becomes this way because of an overly strong executive committee or just malaise, it’s time for change.

We pushed decision making from the executive committee into the full board, and from the full board down into the committees, all to better engage board members. We focused on recruiting new members to fit the specific strategic initiatives of the university and created a stream of ad hoc, short-duration task forces to advance various key strategic initiatives.

And slowly, as we repopulated the board and educated the members, we shifted the board’s conversation to strategy. The annual budget approval process is now a strategy conversation.

When smart people start thinking in diverse (and sometimes necessarily divergent) ways about the strategy guiding their organization, you’ve got the makings of a dynamic group. Committees can be great ways to channel that sort of dynamism and work out strategy when a common vision for the future is lacking. The result?

… shifting the authority matrix of the board away from the executive committee and down toward the committees—that created an even more notable improvement in board engagement.

I think any board member should serve with at least a private mental sense of what his or her term length will be, and then engage in the work of the board based on that mental clock.

“Board Engagement” is simply how we describe members who recognize that their time is finite, and value their organization’s time and their personal time enough to get to work.

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