Board Leadership Guest Series: The Care and Feeding of Quality Board Members

September 13, 2010

As we lead up to the launch of our third annual Board Leadership Training Series in October, we’re happy to share a new guest series featuring previous participants and what they have learned. Last week, Laura Otten of the Nonprofit Centre at LaSalle University’s School of Business, kicked off the series with a few words of wisdom. This week, Alan Levitan, the Board President for the Arts Council of the Morris Area, offers several great, practical ideas for any of you who serve on a nonprofit board.

Arts Council of the Morris Area

Board President Alan Levitan, Board 1st Vice President Anh Molloy, Executive Director Anne Aronovitch of the Arts Council of the Morris Area

Alan Levitan

Last year, I attended several of the Dodge Board Leadership Training Series workshops as part of a team of participants from the Arts Council of the Morris Area. Now in its 37th year, the Arts Council has long been committed to “bringing the arts to the center of community life.” With a passionate belief in the important and vital role that the arts play in our lives, the Arts Council continues to find new and creative ways to deliver its wide variety of programs, as well as to work towards the building of a sustainable community in which the arts are an integral part. The Arts Council’s able staff is complemented by a dedicated Board, currently 26 strong with a diverse representation of artists, professionals, business people, educators, and community volunteers.

Since I first became a member of the Arts Council’s Executive Committee, and especially in the past 2½ years that I have been President of the Board, the Board has focused on how to strengthen the organization as a whole: from fundraising and marketing to finances and governance. But I have come to realize that an important component underlying all of those areas is the strength of the Board itself. While all of the Dodge Leadership workshops that we attended were useful, it was the “Care and Feeding of Quality Board Members” workshop in the Spring of 2010 that provided an important framework for work in that area. Attended by our Executive Director and two other Board members, in addition to myself, the workshop provided very valuable information that we embraced with gusto.

So what did we learn and how have we applied what we learned? Here are just a couple of the areas that we began to focus on:

Board Recruitment & Development

To strengthen our process of identifying individuals whose passion, expertise and commitment match what the organization is looking for, we developed/revised several tools that were suggested during the course of the workshop:

  • We revised our Board Profile Form, including a new “connections” section which will help in fundraising as well as in recruiting volunteers and new board candidates.
  • We developed a method for allowing prospective Board candidates to get to know the Arts Council’s programs and activities before moving to the next step of being recommended to the Board.
  • We developed a Frequently Asked Questions summary that gives an important overview of the organization. We have already used it with potential Board candidates and will use in our new Board member orientation program, in addition to sharing it with our existing Board.
  • We have begun to reassess the role of the Nominating Committee, recognizing the important greater role that it can and should play in the life of the Board. No longer just focused on proposing new candidates to the Board, the Committee will be taking on a greater role in educating and developing Board members. As a natural outgrowth, a change of the Committee’s name from Nominating to Board Development is being considered.

Board Commitment

To strengthen communication with and among Board members, as well as to reinforce the responsibilities and expectations of Board members, we created several new tools:

  • We developed an Annual Commitment Letter to refresh our knowledge of what we originally signed on for and to renew our commitment to the organization we all love.
  • We developed and are using new Board assessment tools that include an assessment of initial Board members by the leadership, a member self-assessment, and a group assessment activity, currently in the planning stages for an October retreat.
  • We have already set our calendar dates for the entire year for the Board and all committee meetings to allow for better interaction between Board/committee members.
  • Our Executive Director began a monthly e-mail to Board members with a calendar of the organization’s events—not only Board activities, but also all staff-led programs and activities taking place during the month. We believe that by disseminating these dates in advance, we are encouraging Board members to become better educated about the organization through attending programs and events.

Board Meetings

In strengthening the Board to attract and maintain good Board members, we realized that we needed to take steps to ensure that we keep those Board members engaged, particularly in these times when Board members often have busy careers and/or diverse community commitments.

Using tools from the workshop, we began to reframe the structure of our Board meetings with the result that both the content and the value of our meetings are in positive transition. We are moving away from “historical reflection” (i.e. what has happened since our last meeting) to proactively focusing on the elements of our strategic plan, using our Board for what we have determined to be a huge strength: brainstorming big issues and mapping courses of action. We learned there are better ways to disseminate committee work, event planning and other “routine” organizational business information without wasting valuable time listening to reports at meetings. We also now begin each Board meeting with an “Arts Moment” that engages the Board in an arts experience. After all, we are the Arts Council! So far we have incorporated both music and poetry into our meetings.

I can honestly say that most of the actions highlighted in this blog were a direct result of what we learned at the Dodge workshop. However, I believe that a key reason we have accomplished so much is that the four of us attending the workshop met less than one week later to debrief what we had learned and to summarize what we felt was useful to bring back to the Board. This summary became our “to-do” list that kept us committed to accomplish as much as we have.

We hope that we have taken on the challenge that Laura Otten described in the last blog, and we echo her sage advice.

In addition to his role as president of the Arts Council of the Morris Area, Alan Levitan also serves on four other non-profit boards and one public company board. Mr. Levitan is the former president and CEO of Kings Super Markets and currently owns a consulting firm specializing in helping food manufacturers go to market as well as assisting large retailers increase sales through a combination of improving marketing, merchandising and promotions skills.