I advise the nonprofits with which I work to dedicate at least one board meeting each year to reviewing the strategic plan and the organization’s progress towards their shared goals. This same meeting not only presents an opportunity for the executive director or president to present the key elements of the action plan for the coming year, but it is also the perfect time for the board to consider how it will support achievement of the plan.
So, rather than listening to the staff’s presentation of the action plan and saying, “good work!” or, “go for it!” I’ll suggest that now is the time for the board to have an essential conversation about its role in supporting successful achievement of the plan. Here are four questions that can help prompt a productive discussion:
How can we as a board and board members be most helpful in supporting achievement of this plan?
Encourage the staff to give some thought to this question in advance of your meeting and be prepared to suggest where they think the board and/or board members might be of help—the more specific the better. So, rather than saying, “It would be great if the board could be more active this year in fundraising,” encourage staff to get specific about what kind of assistance would be of most value—hosting a cultivation event, bringing two potential donors for a visit, agreeing to participate in a phonathon, etc. At the same time, ask the board, “Based upon the plan we’ve reviewed and the staff’s strategies for this year, where do you think we might be of help?” You may get some ideas and offers that surprise you. Consider concluding this conversation by getting very concrete: “So, what is it that we can all commit to do?”
Are we structured the way we need to be in order to best support achievement of the plan?
You might encourage the board to ignore for a moment what committees you already have in place. The goal here is to look at the plan and ask, “What committees are needed here in order to best support achievement of the plan?” This might result in the creation of some ad hoc committees or the reassignment of responsibilities to existing committees. Logical next questions might be, “What should the charge be to the chair of this committee?” or “What is it we would want to make sure this committee accomplishes in the next 12 months?” Keep the focus on achievement of the strategic plan.
What should we expect of each other as board members as we work together over the next 12 months?
I think this is a healthy discussion to have each year with the board, especially at one of the first meetings with new board members. This is an opportunity to set or reaffirm shared expectations about meeting attendance, committee participation, annual giving, attendance at events, communication, and so on. You might also use this conversation as a chance to remind board members about the role of board members and how that differs from the role of staff. Do this with the full board, using a flip-chart to capture the information, and be sure to share it with those board members who aren’t in attendance. This is also a great document to have as you recruit your next round of board members. And be sure to ask the question, “If we are going to achieve our strategic priorities, and support the staff in being successful, what is it that we each must commit to over the next 12 months?”
Do we have the skills and experience around the board table to best support achievement of the plan?
Posing this question will help to set the stage for the next round of board recruitment. What you want the board to do is to look at the strategic plan and consider together what you are hoping to accomplish over the next few years. You might ask, “If we were creating a board from scratch and recruiting members to accomplish the goals of this plan, on what skills and abilities would we place a priority?” That list (on a flip-chart) might grow to be fairly long, but then ask the board to prioritize which skills, abilities, or experience to prioritize in the recruitment of volunteers for committees or in the recruitment of new board members in the year ahead. This kind of exercise can bring great focus to your recruitment efforts.
As a former board chair of a few different boards, I encourage you to ask these questions of your board but check-in along the way to ask your president or executive director: “Are we developing something here that will be of help to you, or are we creating more work or getting in your way?” Make sure you aren’t creating a monster for the staff!
It is tempting for boards to hand-off responsibility for achievement of the strategic plan to the staff. Yes, the day-to-day of moving the strategies and action plans forward is their responsibility, but the board must determine how to successfully support the staff and best use their own skills, abilities, and experience to advance the strategic priorities. The questions above can help you to determine how and where the board can be of most help.