Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Helping Your Board to Be More Effective: Five keys for high-level governance

By Virgil R. Carter

Despite the great diversity among non-profit organizations, we all seek effective governance by our boards. 

A critical starting point is to recognize what a vital resource time is. Recruiting new board members is challenging because volunteers are concerned about drains on their time. Governing well is critical because a board’s time together is limited. Thus, how you and your board use your time matters.

No one wants to be associated with a governing board that is unsure of its role, unproductive, boring, or contentious.  Effective (and enjoyable) governing boards tend to be forward-looking, and provide the maximum effective (and enjoyable) leadership, especially when time is limited.  Effective boards tend to focus on the one role that they, and no one else, can fulfill:  organizational strategy and priorities designed to fulfill the organization’s mission.  What are strategic boards?  Strategic boards spend the majority of their time identifying broadly important outcomes, setting priorities, ensuring needed resources and monitoring the way the staff and other volunteers implement major initiatives designed to achieve the desired strategic outcomes.

Here are five steps volunteers may take for an effective, productive, and rewarding governing board.

1.      Define success. Establish and practice a shared definition of organizational success. No matter how well an organization may perform in any 12-month period, if it can’t perform effectively year in and year out, it can’t really be called a successful organization. Thus, success has a lot to do with organizational consistency and continuity over time.

2.      Understand your core assets. Every organization has core assets.  Typically they include:  1) knowledge, 2) community, and 3) advocacy. These are the resources for an organization’s accomplishment of its mission.  Volunteers and staff must be strategically focused on the welfare of core assets that cause members and customers to value the organization.

3.      Think the unthinkable. Ours is a rapidly changing world in which we face unprecedented competition. To remain both up-to-date and competitive, focus on and prepare for the unthinkable—both opportunities and threats. Effective boards consider the one thing that would most revolutionize their organization and the one thing that would most jeopardize it. Thereafter, boards focus strategically to realize the opportunity and head off the threat.

4.      Set priorities and monitor them. Resources are always finite—there are never enough. So develop strategic priorities and communicate what is truly important. To maintain a strategic perspective, boards must think in terms of what is important, not how to achieve results. The staff and others of the organization’s operational side are the ones to be held responsible for executing the action. 

5.      Establish a respectful staff partnership. The professional staff of an organization offer important resources—so important that it may be impossible for a board to be truly strategic without them. For example, staff members may have access to knowledge, contacts, and resources that may be unknown to a board. The staff is uniquely positioned to help develop and implement a definition of organizational success that’s built upon consistent performance, year after year.

Effective boards are both enjoyable and productive where it matters most:  achieving the organization’s mission.

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