The Four Markers of a Healthy Board

A few weeks ago, I shared the Five Symptoms of an Unhealthy Board that I’ve observed over the course of my career working with nonprofit boards. As a reminder:

  1. The Silent Start: Board members sit in awkward silence as they wait for the Board Chair to call the meeting to order. They don’t seem to know (or even like) each another. You can cut the air in the room with a knife.
  2. The Frantic Beg: Less than half of the Board is present at the meeting’s start time. The chief executive begins feverishly calling and texting board members, begging them to dial-in to achieve quorum. Those who arrive on time wonder if it’s worth it.
  3. The Great Escape: One-by-one board members drift out of the meeting early, or worse, drift off to sleep. Those who stick around to the end also wonder if it’s worth it.
  4. The Dominator: The CEO or Board Chair dominates the conversation. There is little opportunity for others to contribute. Despite the diversity of experience, knowledge and skill-sets represented by those around the table, board members are rarely invited to engage.
  5. The Paper Chase: The Director of Development has to chase down the annual personal contributions of board members, repeatedly, at end of the fiscal year. Despite clearly stated expectations for board member giving and fundraising, it’s as though board members are channeling Charlton Heston: “I’ll give you my money when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”

Now, imagine what your board meetings could look like if they were a healthy, well-functioning team:

Most board members show up early so they have time to reconnect with one another.  They don’t move to their seats right away as they work their way around the room, calling each other by first names, checking in with one another on how things are going in work and life.  The Board Chair has to speak up a few times to get everyone to move to their seats and come to order. Having carefully read the packet of materials sent a week earlier, the energy in the room is palpable. Board members are eager to begin the strategic discussion outlined in the meeting agenda.  As the meeting progresses, there is no dominant participant.  Board members have come prepared and engage robustly in meaningful discussion about the future of the organization.  At the end of the meeting, the Fundraising Committee Chair thanks the board for 100% board giving even though the organization is still in Q3 of the fiscal year.  Board members stick around to the end of the meeting and a handful even decide to grab drinks around the corner before heading home.

Many years ago, I came across a book that has had a special influence on my life: The Power of Full Engagement by James Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The authors describe how a healthy, fully-engaged individual is marked by four characteristics. Over time, I have adapted these four characteristics in my consulting work as markers of health for nonprofit boards.

Healthy nonprofit boards are:

  1. Emotionally Connected
  2. Mentally Focused
  3. Physically Energized
  4. Spiritually Aligned

Healthy Boards are Emotionally Connected

Most nonprofit boards gather four or five times a year with board members popping in and popping out. They never have the opportunity to socialize together and become more deeply connected. They know one another’s names, of course, thanks mostly to the pre-printed nameplates sitting conspicuously in front of them on the boardroom table, but the truth is that the group hasn’t formed into a cohesive whole.

That’s a mistake. A crisis will come one day and it will be important that board members have built authentic, trusting relationships with one another.

I recently attended a board meeting of Green Bronx Machine, an early-stage nonprofit in New York City that works with students and teachers to develop skills and habits around growing, preparing and eating healthy food. Two hours into the meeting, Founder Stephen Ritz announced to board members that it was time for lunch. Rather than serve pizza and soda, Ritz directed them to the classroom vegetation tower gardens and in-classroom kitchen. I watched as board members chopped vegetables, cubed chicken cutlets, stir-fried ingredients and sat around a student-sized table to break bread together. Far more than a lunch break, these board members were emotionally connecting with one another. They were engaged in the important process of transitioning from a group of strangers to a team of leaders.

Healthy Boards are Mentally Focused

Governance expert Nancy Axelrod captures well the dreadful experience I’ve witnessed far too often over the years: “Board members who are asked to sit through mind-numbing show-and-tell meetings with predetermined outcomes can’t be faulted for wondering how their presence makes any material difference beyond compliance with the fiduciary obligation to show up and the opportunity to perfect the skill of yawning with one’s mouth closed.”

When we offer board members “mind-numbing show-and-tell meetings with predetermined outcomes,” how can we possibly expect them to be energized, enthusiastic, generous and engaged?

Healthy boards are mentally focused. Board members engage in the challenging, strategic, big-picture issues that the organization is facing. Meetings are designed to tap into the wisdom and experience of board members so they can collectively contribute to a vibrant discussion and well-informed decision.

A mentally focused board is also a well-rounded group of leaders with a diversity of personal backgrounds and professional skill sets.  How can a board rise to the challenge of solving a pervasive social problem or complex organizational issue if the directors are homogenous in composition?

Healthy Boards are Physically Energized

Some of the most memorable and impactful moments I’ve experienced with boards over the years occurred when board members were not trapped behind the boardroom table. Rather, they were in break out groups, spread around the building, with markers and newsprint in hand devising plans on important issues that they would report back to the group. Or they were taking a walking tour on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood that their organization had just begun to serve.

I recently observed a group of newly elected board members an impressive vegetable garden uncharacteristically positioned at the entrance of an urban public school. They were guided by elementary school students proudly showing off the fruit of their labor and explaining the ins-and-outs of the horticultural science behind it. Watching these new board members react to the students’ enthusiasm and knowledge demonstrated during the experience, it didn’t take long before I knew they were hooked. This could never have been achieved so quickly sitting behind the boardroom table.

Be creative.  Step out of the boardroom. Engage your board in new and different ways. Bake movement into board service.

Healthy Boards are Spiritually Aligned

In his book, Holy Discontent, author Bill Hybels talks about the importance of having mission-oriented professionals stay close to their “holy discontent:” that social, life or environmental condition that first stirred their passions and moved them to engage, to jump in, to get involved.

Take, for example, the board of a local children’s hospital.  Chances are that most members of the board have been affected by childhood illness in one way or another. Maybe they were treated by the hospital as a kid. Maybe their daughter beat childhood cancer. Maybe a neighbor couple faced the terrifying prospect of losing a son. These types of experiences likely led many of the hospital’s board members to want to contribute from a seat on the board. They wanted to be helpful, to do something good for the children of their community and to lighten the burden for other families.

Yet board service can easily become limited to a series of mundane board and committee meetings held in sterile conference rooms.

Ensuring that board members stay spiritually aligned with the mission should be a regular priority as the organization structures the work of the board. Board members should stay personally connected at a deeper, emotional, values-driven level to the work of the organization. They need to stay close to their “holy discontent.” Whether that means walking the halls of the ward where kids are dealing with cancer or hearing the stories of healing directly from nurses and doctors, governance time spent remembering “The Why” behind board service is priceless.

Questions to Consider for Your Next Board Meeting

  1. How can you build social time into the board’s set of activities so that meaningful relationships are forged between board members?
  2. How might you restructure the agenda in a way that encourages directors to bring their A-game, capturing their collective knowledge, wisdom, experience and professional skills?
  3. What activity or experience might you use to get board members out of their seats so that they can touch, feel, smell, see – and yes – even taste the organization’s work?
  4. How might you bring board members back to the heart of the mission and, in doing so, remind them why they signed up to serve in the first place?

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