Is Your Board As Good As This One?

heart2A friend suggested that perhaps I’ve been a bit harsh lately when it comes to nonprofit boards.

Sensing a theme?

My friend was worried that people might start to think I have a personal vendetta against boards. But nothing could be further from the truth!

I want nonprofit boards to succeed wildly. So this week, rather than harp on what boards are doing wrong, I’m going to tell you all about a board that’s doing things right.

Then, I’m going to explain how you too can create an amazing board like this one.

MY FRIEND SCOTT

Actually, I’m not really going to be the one to tell you about this amazing board.

Rather, I’m going to let my friend, Scott (not his real name because, as he told me, he doesn’t want any implied comparisons with any other boards he has been on.)

Scott sits on the board of Lambda Legal, a national nonprofit who, for the last 40 years, has fought for gay rights through high-impact court cases. Lambda Legal has a budget in the $10 – $20 million range.

(Full disclosure: I used to serve on this board. But I’m determined to let Scott do the talking here.)

So why does Scott think this board is so great?

WHY SCOTT LOVES HIS NONPROFIT’S BOARD

1) It’s passionate.

Scott: “There is an almost palpable tone of reverence for and dedication to the mission. No one joined the board to get a promotion at the bank, to land clients or for social advancement. People stretch for LL due to the seriousness of its mission and daily work. Enthusiasm is high and inspired me to stretch.”

2) It holds itself accountable.

Scott: “The passion and respect surrounding LL’s work and mission result in a greater willingness of the board and staff to hold each other accountable for anything less than excellence. Lambda Legal is run as a tight ship, financially – they do not waste money.”

3) It comes prepared.

Scott: “Board members are expected to be prepared for the meetings and are given excellent and substantive briefing memos well before the meetings. Board members are socialized to avoid wasting everyone’s time with comments that aren’t pertinent and well thought out. I have never left a board meeting thinking that any of my time has been wasted.”

4) Its members are smart and real.

Scott: “There is considerable expertise and wisdom on the board and I often learn important things from listening to the comments of other board members. Board members are almost universally genuine, “real,” interesting and impressive. I suspect that a ‘no assholes’ filter has been applied to potential board members.”

(Note: I don’t curse on my blog, but Scott can.)

5) It has a great appreciation for the staff.

Scott: “The staff kicks ass and there seems to be unanimous and intense admiration for their work and its considerable impact.”

(There Scott goes cursing again…)

SO HOW DO YOU GET A BOARD LIKE LAMBDA LEGAL’S?

Wow. Scott really does love his board. And with a board like that, why wouldn’t he?

Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s great for LL, but my board’s not really at that level and I’m not sure how we’d get it there.”

There are definitely some lessons we can all take from Scott’s words. Here are four.

1) Understand where your board currently stands. It’s hard to improve if you don’t have a baseline to start from. You may have an intuitive sense, but it helps enormously to have a more objective evaluation. If you need help in this area, you can download my step-by-step guide to assessing your board.

2) Recruit really well. As Scott stated so eloquently, LL has done a great job of recruiting intelligent, genuine people who have passion for the mission, hold themselves accountable, and come prepared. How do you find such amazing people for your own board? For one, don’t settle. Too many boards, unfortunately, are willing to accept into their ranks anyone willing to be there. But that’s a terrible way to go about it. Instead, make sure that when you recruit, you ask prospective board members the right questions.

3) Prioritize the partnership between the board chair and Executive Director and staff. I’ve said it before and will say it again. The best sign of a healthy nonprofit is a healthy partnership between the board chair and CEO. Once a week, these two should be having an intentional conversation with an agenda. Here’s a sample meeting agenda.

4) Demand accountability and preparation. Again, recruiting the right people is key. It’s also critical to choose the right leader. The board chair sets the tone here. But how do you choose the right board chair? Here’s a checklist.

And, once you have a new and very capable board chair, here’s some advice for how he/she should spend his/her first 30 days to set the new board up for great success.

IF YOU NEED HELP BUILDING A GREAT BOARD

Don’t want to give you the wrong impression. What Lambda Legal has accomplished isn’t simple. It takes strong leadership and a great culture to build a great board of directors. If things aren’t going so well at your nonprofit and the list above isn’t enough to guide you, please reach out to me and tell me exactly what you’re struggling with.

Boards can make or break a nonprofit and I’d like to do everything I can to help yours.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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