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My Spotlight: Non-Profit Board Governance

Simply put, I am drawn to non-profit board development, which has become the main focus of my consulting practice. Why?

  • First and foremost, with an array of missions to advance our society, non-profit organizations deserve high quality stewardship. These organizations, after all, collectively make up the conscience of our society.

  • Volunteer board members want to not only do good, but also want to make good use of their time. Board dysfunction leads to a revolving door, especially among younger board members.

  • There is well-documented, significant turnover in the leadership of non-profits, meaning boards are having to step up to the plate during complex executive transitions. (Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit – Stanford Social Innovation Review)

  • Even smart, committed people do not necessarily know how to best serve on boards, and are often confronted with strong cultural norms particular to an organization that make it difficult to participate fully.

  • Boards are made up of people with opinions and personalities that sometimes clash, often as a result of disparate backgrounds or life experiences. People will be who they are, but ultimately, how does the team perform?

Once an organization commits resources to board development, the first step is often working with a consultant to understand the unique challenge or set of challenges at hand. When I am brought in as a governance consultant or coach, we approach the puzzle collaboratively, in a way that draws in volunteers of all classes and backgrounds.

I do agree with thinking popular in non-profit governance circles that boards are too often engaged in transactional or technical work, rather than the ‘generative’ work that is sorely needed (Governance as Leadership by Chait, Ryan and Taylor, 2005). It is not simple to focus the board on what is most important in order to set or correct the course of an organization. But it is well worth the effort.

Here are a few examples of questions that either have arisen in my work recently, or may stimulate board development. For organizations working with immigrants, how can today’s political discourse be used to connect immigration policy to American values in a way that garners meaningful public support beyond social media? For affordable housing organizations, how can a diverse collection of community members truly participate in complex real estate and financial decisions that over time define an organization’s impact in a neighborhood, city or region? For all non-profits, how can organizations not only invite younger members to the board table, but also more fully engage and retain them? And, if you do recognize issues of class and wealth disparity on your board, have you been able to create more inclusive board practices as a result? Grappling with questions such as these requires time, as there are no quick answers. Yet positive change does come to boards that are determined to improve and take concrete steps to do so.

Given the questions and challenges boards face, my work is varied and always compelling. What are the questions your board is either avoiding or on the verge of discussing that can lead to higher level governance? What puzzle does your board need to solve so that the organization can more effectively advance its mission? If the right questions are not yet on the table, perhaps now is the time.

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