By Regenia Bailey/Consulting
Just as successful businesses and efficient local governments are integral to thriving communities, strong, high-performing nonprofit organizations contribute to a region’s success and attractiveness. Nonprofits address needs and opportunities that the public and private sectors cannot or do not address. Developing excellence in each of these sectors contributes to our area’s social and economic well-being.
The Corridor has more than 2,000 registered nonprofit organizations, ranging from the very large to the very tiny. Although not all of these organizations are active, this number indicates a substantial need for skilled board members and nonprofit leaders. While serving on a nonprofit board may seem like a straightforward task, it is distinct from work in other sectors. Although we often look to an organization’s executive director or CEO when considering organizational performance, the fundamental responsibility of ensuring a strong organization rests with the board of directors.
An effective board comprises board members who understand their roles and responsibilities. The board, as the responsible legal entity of the organization, has fiduciary responsibilities: the duty of care, the duty of loyalty and the duty of obedience. Additionally, the board has functional responsibilities:
– determining the organization’s mission and purpose,
– supervising and supporting the chief executive,
– ensuring effective planning,
– making certain there are adequate organizational resources and managing these resources well,
– providing broad guidance for programs and services,
– enhancing the public standing and understanding of the organization,
– maintaining organizational accountability, and
– sustaining an effective board.
Although there are legal requirements and standard practices, these responsibilities are lived out differently in different organizations, depending upon the organization’s maturity, staff level and current activities. It’s necessary for board members, even those who have served on numerous boards, to understand how these basic roles and responsibilities work in their specific organization. Board member job descriptions and orientation sessions are useful ways to do this. Boards that overlook or neglect their legal or functional responsibilities do so at their organization’s peril.
Beyond performance of its legal and functional responsibilities, an effective board has distinguishing cultural characteristics that support its ability to build strong organizations.
An effective board has synergy: it is greater than the sum of its diverse parts. We’ve all seen boards that contain a stellar group of community leaders — each a talented individual in his or her own organization — that do not live up to the promise of the collective talent around the board table. It’s not enough to have knowledgeable, high-performing individuals together in a board room. The effective board determines how to work as a team in which everyone’s skills and talents coalesce to create a powerful group that moves the organization forward.
Synergy more easily occurs in a board that comes together and focuses on an organization’s mission. A mission-driven focus enables a diverse group of individuals to set personal agendas, leadership styles and other differences aside to work together to advance the organization. A mission-driven approach avoids the cult of personality, the dominance of one person’s vision, approach, or opinion, be it a founder, a board member or the executive director/CEO.
A mission-driven focus is enhanced by a board that thinks strategically. A strategic board has a structure and a plan in place and uses it to guide the organization. Its plan is more than a to-do list: it is designed to capitalize on opportunities that play to the organization’s strengths and minimize threats that target the organization’s weaknesses. In addition, a strategic board regularly — not just at strategic planning time — scans the external environment of the organization looking for opportunities and threats. A strategic board is always asking, “How will this (activity, event, shift in zeitgeist) affect the organization?”
An effective board has more of a ‘can-do’ than a ‘how can we?’ attitude. It figures out how to say ‘yes’ when it is strategic to do so. It believes in the organization, its staff, volunteers, and clients/constituents. A positive organization doesn’t allow the emotions or the frustrations of the moment to dominate or determine its behavior. When faced with challenges, the board takes a thoughtful approach to ensure that it does not act out of fear or anger, but in strategic ways that promote the organization.
An effective board not only develops, but takes steps to implement a strategic plan. It recognizes that an organization is best defined by its action rather than its words. Although processing information and planning are critical components of success, the effective board does not become so involved in these activities that it does not act.
Finally, an effective board has an emotional connection to the organization and its work. Passion is what enables the board to be positive and believe in the work of the organization. It supports the commitment necessary for board members to come together around an organization’s mission and work to create a powerful, effective organization that does its part in building a strong, thriving community.
Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Inititative. She is a former mayor of Iowa City and teaches business courses as an adjunct faculty member at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit www.baileyleadershipinitiative.com.