I've been working with an organization whose board members have been, to put it nicely, lethargic. Many of them do not respond to communications from the Director or Board President, often skip meetings, and rarely volunteer to help the organization. I sat down with board and staff to talk about increasing the organization's effectiveness, and heard the typical concerns: not enough time, money, staff and volunteers. But when I probed deeper into the situation, one board member said 'We don't really know what we could or should be doing as board members'.
That was an 'aha' moment, and because of that statement we began to work constructively to clarify expectations and generally increase board members understanding of their role in the organization. I pulled out my handy toolbox and got to work. Here are some of the tools I considered
- Position descriptions for the board officers. No one wants to volunteer for a position that is undefined. Is the secretary responsible for the minutes? That depends on the size and structure of the organization, but I'd like to know before I agree to serve in that capacity. Likewise the treasurer - is bookkeeping involved or is it financial oversight?
- Position descriptions for board members. In addition to attending meetings, what should I be doing? Am I expected to make a financial contribution? How much? Should I be attending events? Is it a good idea to visit the organization's activities or not? If I'm on the board of a farmer's market I'm probably expected to shop there, but if I'm on the board of a domestic violence shelter I may be asked not to stop by unless invited.
- Committee descriptions. What's the purpose of each committee? What are some of the key tasks? How often should the committee meet, and how does it report on its work? Who serves on the committee besides board members?
- Who does what? I use a matrix to list all the key tasks and who is responsible for each. This can be quite basic - who schedules board meetings, who sets the agenda, etc. A more sophisticated task list can clarify responsibility for key initiatives, such as volunteer recruitment and recognition.
- Board evaluations. Use a basic evaluation form to assess how well the board is working. These are typically anonymous, and address issues such as how effectively the board makes decisions, whether there are clear actions steps at the end of meetings, or the amount of conflict and dysfunction on the board. An evaluation like this gives every Board member a chance to express concerns and helps the board to identify unspoken issues. Used once a year, it's a great way to gauge progress, too.
- Retreats. There's no substitute for spending a few hours talking about how the board and the organization are doing in a relaxed atmosphere. (Do not attempt to do this as part of a regular board meeting when there is other business to handle). This is a good time to set goals for the organization for the coming year, revisit the strategic plan, or simply lean back and dream big. A facilitator can help the process but is not always necessary if communications within the organization are healthy.
Did these tools work for the organization in question? Well... I suppose now is the time for me to confess that the organization I described is fictitious, although I've encountered all of the issues described in this blog in one organization or another.
Here's one last thought, one which I often share with board members: serving on a board should be satisfying and rewarding. Sure it's hard work and requires a lot of commitment. But if board meetings aren't something you look forward to, maybe it's time to look in the toolbox and do some tinkering.