The importance of your board’s culture

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial

We’ve all heard Peter Drucker’s quote “culture eats strategy for lunch” dozens of times. This doesn’t mean that culture is more important than strategy; rather, it serves as a cautionary note that leaders must be as attentive to developing a positive organizational culture as they are at developing the organization’s strategic and operational plans.

While a nonprofit organization may attend to its culture when it comes to staff and its daily operations, most nonprofits fail to consider how the culture of the board affects its abilities to lead and govern. Here are five points to consider in evaluating the culture of your board:

Is your board full of conflict or conflict-avoidant? The ability of board members to work with one another is fundamental to board work. However, your board should not be so focused on everyone getting along that it avoids difficult discussions or decision-making. Working well together means ensuring respectful dialogue and behavior among board members; it does not mean that there won’t be differences of opinion. The ability to explore different perspectives should be viewed as a benefit, rather than a detriment, to providing good leadership for the organization.

Does your board have a culture of accountability? Your board should have a reasonable expectation of follow-through from its members, committees and chief executive, but does it also hold itself responsible for its own tasks and the goals of the organization? A culture of accountability is evidenced by follow-through on tasks and objective problem solving, rather than blaming and excuse-making when goals or timelines aren’t met. Without a culture of accountability, it may be difficult to move things forward, and tasks may be delayed or left undone. There might be pattern of leaving things to the last minute or relying upon a small group of people to carry the workload for the entire board. This type of behavior can lead to disengagement among members, and result in a weak, ineffectual board that is overly reliant upon staff for organizational direction.

To develop a culture of accountability, the board must be clear about what it expects from its members, its committees and its chief executive, and follow up regarding these responsibilities. Setting clear guidelines about responsibilities and providing them in writing can help avoid misunderstandings. Once expectations are outlined, it’s easier to have follow-up discussions about how well these expectations are being met.

A culture of accountability also influences how well the organization achieves or exceeds its goals. If your board chronically falls short of its fundraising numbers or fails to meet deadlines on the objectives outlined in the strategic plan, consider how you can further clarify expectations, assign responsibilities, have objective problem-solving discussions and develop more accountability.

What’s the leadership culture of your board? Is the board leading along with its chief executive or is it following the chief executive’s lead? Ideally, the relationship between the board and its chief executive should be one of co-leadership, with each having distinct, as well as shared areas of responsibility. When the board abdicates its leadership and cedes its responsibility for direction and governance of the organization, its work can feel like nothing more than a rubber stamp for staff decisions. Developing a strong leadership culture on your board requires that the board understand and exercise its  responsibilities.

Is there a culture of engagement on your board? Consistent board meeting attendance and having members show up at organizational events are good indicators that they feel connected and involved in the organization’s work. When board members feel connected, they typically extend that connection to their own social networks. They may bring friends and family members to organization events. Some may work to secure event or organizational sponsorship or support from their employers or work colleagues.

Engaged board members think about the organization between board meetings. They may notice changes in the community and bring them up in board meetings to discuss the impact that these events will have on the organization. If your board is struggling with attendance, promotion or even strategic thinking, you may want to consider what you can do to develop a stronger culture of engagement.

Balance attention to culture with the other work of the board. Attention to culture isn’t something that you address once everything else on your board is working – it’s a fundamental part of how your board does its work. It is influenced by a number of factors – the people around the board table; the life stage, health and history of the organization; and the external environment in which it operates – meaning it is never static. Being attentive to the board’s culture, rather than just allowing it to develop organically, is an ongoing activity that is important in strengthening the board’s ability to effectively lead and govern.

Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit