The Long and Rewarding Road to Transform Your Board of Directors
With so many nonprofits seeking to “transform” themselves for greater impact, greater scale, or simply to meet the realities of the fast-transforming world in which they operate, a pivotal but necessary step is transforming the board that governs and leads the organization itself. For a variety of reasons, ranging from power dynamics to the sheer difficulty of motivating an often-large group with conflicting priorities to change themselves, this is often a missed step.
A highly functional board can be evolved more than transformed. A new chair, minor by-law changes, and adjustments to communication patterns and meeting structures are the types of tweaks that should always be considered and implemented on an ongoing basis and driven by an empowered CEO in partnership with a board governance committee. But when you need more – when you need a true transformation – a careful and strategic approach led by the CEO is warranted. Having partnered with leaders across numerous organizations on transformations such as these, some key steps and patterns emerge for those that transform their boards successfully.
You Can’t Travel This Road Alone
Being a CEO or leader of an organization can be a lonely existence. Board transformation is not the time to go it alone; emulate the Avengers more than Batman. Enter with partners and allies. Join with key leaders on your board who have acknowledged the need for transformation and have agreed to partner with you to forge a new reality. Ideally, your key partner will be the current or incoming Board Chair and you’ll then surround yourselves with a Governance Committee or special task force to study and implement the necessary changes.
Consider Your Organization’s Specific Needs and Set a Shared Vision
Boards are not one size fits all; different boards have different needs, and the organizations they govern have unique needs at different times. There’s a certain homogeneity to boards as they are currently constructed because we’ve all been following the same “best practices,” which I’m as guilty as of preaching and promulgating as anyone. Fundraising and contributing to your mission is a function of your board, but not the only function. Yet, if your organization is approaching a large campaign or relies entirely on philanthropy, the right board for you might be a large board with lots of connected givers and getters.
However, there are many circumstances in which building your board primarily for fundraising may not be the best move. Perhaps you’re considering a merger, have fallen out of touch with the communities you serve, are approaching a set of strategic decisions, have a business model that relies on fee for service, or find your organization in a state where needing your board members to drive fundraising is not the prime concern. You must build your board to meet your priorities. Before embarking on a board transformation, be sure to understand what you are transforming into and why. The legal responsibilities of a board are actually quite narrow, though far-reaching, so you are painting with a blank canvas.
Come to an understanding of what your board should be with your partners, the committee/task force taking this on with you. Based on your needs, establish a vision for a reformed board of directors that you all agree on and feel comfortable sharing with the larger board as a charter for your work.
Go Slow and Look to the Future
Rare is the group that will vote themselves out of office, any office. As you use the shared vision of a new board of directors to build consensus for a different future, be very clear you are talking about the future. Timelines can vary but my recommendation is to spend a full year carefully doing the work needed – forming a vision, building consensus among the full board, drafting the specific by-law changes needed, and then voting on those changes. And in doing so, make clear all changes and the specific by-law changes will take place at a pre-determined future date; I’d recommend a full year or more after the vote (see timeline below).
Going slow will allow you to do this right but it will also empower the board members, who must ultimately accept and approve the changes, to think of the organization’s future state as opposed to what this means for them, tomorrow.
Carefully Construct the Profile and Prospect List for Your New Board Members
While your journey will likely result in keeping some of your existing board members, true transformation will require new people at the table as well. Specifically, do not broach this until the by-law changes have been approved, but then the work of your committee or task force really begins. You should collectively create a profile of the types of people you will need on this new board. Then consider which existing members might fit this archetype and would be willing to continue to serve.
Next, you will move to recruiting new people. Here again, you will benefit from moving slowly as recruiting the right people will take time. Armed with your archetype(s) and a core group of returning members, you can begin to build the prospect list of potential new members. Tiering the list between people you know, people you know within one degree, and your dream members will be helpful. For your “dream” list, aim high but be realistic (Oprah Winfrey likely is not joining). Organize the effort as a campaign with benchmarks, regular reporting, and a core of committed volunteers to work alongside you (ideally the same committee or task force that has partnered with you).
Engage and Stay Committed to Your New Board
The most impactful influence you can have on a nonprofit over the long term is the change you make to its board of directors. I guarantee at your organization’s founding or soon after, the board was perfect. Whatever transformation now required, it came from years of neglect or misuse. If you get a second chance and launch a new board through a process like the one described, be strategic and specific about how they will work together, and you with them, and stick to it. Be diligent, and your new board can be the partner you seek and need to unlock your organization’s potential.
About the author
Craig H. Shelley, CFRE, Managing Director, brings a change-management and entrepreneurial approach to nonprofit strategy, fundraising, board recruitment, and board development. Craig is a trusted partner and advisor to the nonprofit sector’s most ambitious leaders and specializes in helping organizations forge new paths to unprecedented impact. In addition to his collaboration with Orr Group’s nonprofit partners, Craig actively seeks out and builds new business relationships for the firm and leads, trains, and mentors staff teams. Craig has first-hand experience in leading board transformation efforts for our clients, and as such, has developed a thoughtful, multi-phase approach to successfully and sustainably transform and strengthen nonprofit boards.