In his popular book Good to Great, Jim Collins proclaims that “good is the enemy of great.” He makes the point that if our organizations are good enough, the chances are slim they will ever be great. Why? Everyone is ultra-busy these days. Most folks spend their precious time on projects that need fixing. Squandering our time on something that’s working adequately so we can make it great can seem like a splurge. It can even feel irresponsible.
Think of the nonprofit organizations you would describe as “great.” What is the first thing you think of when someone asks what makes them so great? I’ll wager most people would respond by pointing to the board. The board is at the very heart of a nonprofit organization. Therefore, the board plays a critical role in determining whether a nonprofit is great or just good enough.
Let’s look at five key traits you will see in boards leading outstanding nonprofits.
» 1. Mutual trust and respect — This is probably the most important element of a great board. Board members must trust and respect other board members as well as the executive director and senior staff members. Creating and nurturing mutual trust and respect among board members and between board and staff takes diligence and determination. It doesn’t happen by accident. When you see a great nonprofit board, you know every person is intentional about building confidence in each other — and working hard to maintain it.
» 2. Personal responsibility — Board members of great nonprofits don’t show up at a board meeting without reading their packet first. They understand they are essentially the owners of the organization and, as such, they need keep their head in the game. They take responsibility for informing themselves about such things as the state of the finances, meeting industry regulations, advocating on behalf of the organization, risk management practices, best practices in board governance, trends affecting the nonprofit, and fundraising efforts. Taking personal responsibility means board members do whatever is necessary to ensure they are prepared for each board meeting and mentally focused during all deliberations.
Members of great boards are never surprised by a negative financial picture because they have been monitoring the reports regularly and doing whatever is necessary to raise additional revenue. When things don’t go as planned, these boards never look around for someone to blame. They accept responsibility themselves and they act accordingly.
» 3. Teamwork — Just like a winning sports team, great boards clearly understand and honor the various roles. The board’s role is similar to the owner of a sports team — looking at the big picture and the external environment. The executive director acts as the team’s coach — executing the strategies of the owners. The staff members are the team players — following the direction of the coach. Of course, as with a high-functioning sports team, nonprofit team members consult and strategize with each other, agree on a plan, and then together they execute the plan and evaluate the results. The board chair meets regularly with the executive director to strategize, offer support and encouragement, and express gratitude for all the hard work. The board often asks the executive director, “What keeps you up at night?” The answer to this question provides critical information about ways board members can team up with the executive director for mutual success.
» 4. Clear strategy — Boards of great nonprofits conduct an annual planning meeting, actively update and follow their strategic plan, and are clear about decision-making practices at every level. These boards meet regularly with the executive director to strategize about how best to meet the organization’s goals. They check in often to make sure goals are aligned with the culture, with available resources and with the mission. These boards have a plan for the entire year in terms of board meeting topics and committee meetings.
A significant portion of every meeting of great nonprofit boards is dedicated to exploring a strategic topic. These board meetings are not dull and boring because they use consent agendas for the mundane issues, making more time available for their real work: strategy. Members of great boards leave every board meeting energized with a feeling of accomplishment, a clear sense of movement toward goals and inspired by their important work.
» 5. Fun and celebration — Great boards find ways to ensure everyone has fun. They carve out time for socializing with fellow board members and with staff members. Great boards know the importance of celebrating their victories and rejoicing in the impact they are having in the lives of others. Some boards even designate a member or a committee to plan regular snippets of fun in each meeting as well as coordinate larger social functions often held at members’ homes. When people get to know each other on a personal basis in a casual setting, they work more effectively together. So, great boards are great because they play well together.
To move your nonprofit from good to great, take a closer look at the board. It all starts and ends with these essential people. High-functioning boards create and nourish outstanding organizations, which in turn fulfill their mission with enthusiasm and effectiveness. Even though your organization might be good already, it can achieve greatness by following these five practices: mutual trust and respect, personal responsibility, teamwork, clear strategy and celebration.
For more ideas on improving nonprofits you are invited to visit Nonprofit Kinect’s website.