Boards Can Be Magical. Take the Challenge!

September 8, 2010

October marks the launch of the third annual Dodge Foundation Board Leadership Training Series for Dodge grantees. The nine-course curriculum will take boards and executive leaders on a deep dive into effective board governance practices. Past participants shared how the workshops put them on path to success and the ups and downs of the journey in our spring guest blog series.

In preparation for our fall workshops we are introducing a new guest series by workshop alumni bloggers. They will tell their tales of the challenges and accomplishments of their board leadership experience. But first take the challenge offered by our lead instructor, Laura Otten, the director of the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University’s School of Business. She loves helping boards, and she won’t hesitate to tell you the truth about what it takes to become an effective board.

Laura Otten
The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business

Perhaps because I have spent the vast majority of my life in academic institutions or perhaps because as an adult, I started making my new year’s resolutions at Rosh Hashanah, I view September as the time of year to make new starts, new commitments, face new challenges. Thus, in preparation for the start of the new year, I am challenging board members everywhere to make a fresh start. I’m dropping the glove; will you pick it up?

Experience tells me that when you accepted the job as board member of the nonprofit in whose mission you believe completely (and if you don’t, you should resign now, as you are not doing anyone—from the nonprofit to yourself—a favor), you had no idea of the importance of the job or its magnitude. My guess is that you had no idea of the responsibility that was now placed on your shoulders. A magical board, comprised of individual board members who all understand their responsibilities and execute them, can help take a nonprofit to its next level.

An active, involved board doing its job (not that of the executive director) can make all the difference to a nonprofit. It can help to strengthen its operations through solid financial oversight, strategic planning, fundraising, and executive director oversight. It can help to build its positive reputation by fulfilling its ambassadorial role, building a compensation structure that attracts the needed talent, and strategically building the board so that it, too, attracts the best and the brightest. It can ensure that the organization stays focused on its missions, fulfilling its promises to its client base, donors, and the general public through strategic planning and evaluation of all of its programs, establishing a clear course for the future and measurable benchmarks for successful programs. And this list could go on and on, but I trust you get the point.

An ineffective board, one that revisits matters again and again but never moves off the mark, or one that is active doing the wrong things—such as using board meetings simply to gather data (i.e., hear reports) rather than to look strategically at that data or to do the executive director’s job and discuss where the new sign should be put or who to hire to mow the lawn—can lead an organization to stagnation and, ultimately, to defeat. These boards give the executive director, staff and other volunteers no direction, no oversight, no support, no guidance—none of the “extra” that a board is designed to bring to an organization. These are the organizations that are caught in an eddy, swirling round and round, working to stay afloat but getting nowhere; these are the ones that are on the way down. A strong executive director might manage to swim out of the eddy, but with no guidance as to the best way out may end up in a riptide—still struggling, still looking like a functioning organization, but still going nowhere.

What do you want your legacy to be? Helping the organization to flourish? Or to stagnate or possibly die? To achieve the former, a number of things must happen:

1. The board and executive director must be working in partnership, with neither dominating but rather working in a collaborative relationship of give and take, sometimes leading, sometimes following, etc.

2. Boards need to get educated as to what their real responsibility is—not what they hope it is, think it is, want it to be. Once educated, there needs to be the translation of knowledge into action, with benchmarks and accountability and assessment.

3. There needs to be a determination of whether the right players are at the table in the right positions. Is the executive director—be he founder, long serving, brand new and everything in between—the right person for the job as it is now and needs to become? Is the composition of the board right for/up to the task at hand? Is the leadership of the board right for these changing times? A board president has the ability to allow a nonprofit to languish doing nothing, to spin its wheels working at the wrong thing or to move in the direction of becoming a stellar board. A president’s collaborative leadership—not a dictatorship or an oligarchy—can help move the board, and, thus, the organization, to a higher level of performance.

4. The board must understand that high performing boards do not happen overnight and that once achieved require vigilance to maintain. This is a job for long-distance runners, not sprinters. But, as I’ve said before, the benefits are worth it all

Board members: the starter’s pistol has been fired. Will you go for it? If the answer is “yes,” you should check out the Dodge Foundation’s Board Leadership Series that offers nine workshops that will help a board become highly functioning and effective.

Laura Otten has been the director of The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business since 2001. She began her affiliation with The Nonprofit Center shortly after it was formed in the early 1980s, working as a consultant and trainer, primarily in the areas of Board development, strategic planning and program evaluation, and she continues to play these roles in addition to providing direction and leadership to The Nonprofit Center’s educational, consulting, and leadership development programs. She is a national expert in numerous aspects of nonprofit management and governance. She earned her MA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and her BA from Sarah Lawrence College.