Saturday, March 5, 2011

Our Boards Must Understand How They Operate

I just finished analyzing a governance assessment completed by 15 different organizations participating in a board building program sponsored by our local Community Foundation. It was fascinating. In many cases there would be one person from an organization that would answer the question in the affirmative about whether that organization had a Whistleblower Policy or a Records Retention policy – policies every organization must have. The rest of the respondents would answer “no” or “I don’t know.” In each of these cases, the executive director/CEO completed the survey along with board members. While I didn’t have the access required to manipulate the data, I’d bet my bottom dollar it was the executive director/CEO that was correctly answering the question because he or she was the one who ensured compliance. Even the answers to questions such as whether the organization employs term limits or a consent agenda revealed that oftentimes more than half the board members did not know if they did or didn’t.

While not surprised, I must admit I’m a bit disappointed. Clearly the majority of these organizations are operating according to proven practices, but the board is not aware of it. According to their answers to the question about the ease of getting a quorum, it doesn’t appear the problem lies with nonattendance. It seems as if the chief administrative officer is implementing the right policies and procedures but failing to share this with the board along the way.

What is the answer? First, maybe it’s time that the executive director/CEO turn over the implementation of board-related responsibilities to the board. Using the example above, this would mean that the development and dissemination of policies would be done by the board. And, if the board handles the job, the members would know the policies exist.

Second, perhaps the content of board education should be changed to focus more on proven practices and how the board complies with such practices. The bylaws committee might mention what section in the bylaws is guiding each action. The board development committee might create more or different talking points or initiate a short quiz at each board meeting designed to test whether the board knows how it is/should be operating. The orientation might be enhanced to ensure new board members understand what is expected and why.

Finally, there has to be a better communication. At meetings the board chair might make it a point to explain why certain actions are being taken. Committees might use a report form that spells out how recommendations relate to the organization’s strategic initiatives the budget, staffing and so on.

Hopefully, by working together more as a board each member of the board will know exactly how the board operates and why. Ultimately, that has to result in a more effective board.

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