Your legacy as chair – a stronger board

When it comes to possible legacies for the board chair, here’s an obvious one: “Leave the board in better shape than you found it.” That may not sound terribly ambitious, but it is harder than you might imagine and possibly the best thing you could ever do for your nonprofit. Sure, providing them with a multi-million dollar gift would be tremendous too, but without a really capable, well-functioning board, even big opportunities can be missed.

In our business we too often see some tragic examples of the impact that a weak board—unsure of its role or how to operate—can have on the organizations for which they are supposed to provide leadership. Organizations that one would think should thrive—compelling missions, meeting important needs, wonderful people on staff—will underperform and struggle mightily if the board can’t provide the leadership that is necessary. In one particularly sad example, I know of a nonprofit that has had 5 executive directors in the past 7 years. Has the board done an especially bad job of hiring, or is there another problem here…perhaps with the board?

I’ve learned that successful boards of directors require a combination of the right people and the right practices, and boards can be transformed even by gradually adding small doses of each. I’ve also learned that transforming a board takes time. Yes, there are immediate and short-term measures boards can take to improve how they operate, but real transformation usually requires a transformation of board culture, and that won’t happen overnight.

Changing board practices and increasing expectations of board service often requires that the board say goodbye to some board members and recruit new board members in their places, but that usually doesn’t happen quickly. Even if your board has term limits, odds are that the board member you recruit this year will be with you for 6, 8, 9 years, or more—which is why successful and strategic recruitment is so very, very important. A miscalculation or a missed opportunity can impact the organization and hamper the board for years to come. Of course, the opposite is true too.

Hopefully you’ve been playing a role in helping to recruit and retain strong board members who are now part of a successful board team. If so, keep at it—keep building the team. If not, I encourage you to make this a priority. Perhaps the greatest service you can provide to your organization is helping to recruit board members who can truly make a difference this year, next year, and for years to come.

There is, of course, a bit of a “chicken or egg” dilemma here. You know that the key to transforming your board and your organization depends upon your ability to recruit some really good, new board members, but how do you attract them to join a dysfunctional or struggling board? Can you transform the board’s practices and culture with the board members you’ve got, or do you have to recruit new board members first? For most, the solution to this dilemma requires you to strategically recruit new board members at the same time as you improve board practices. It is the combination of both that will ultimately transform board culture.

For additional information, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or send him an e-mail message at [email protected].