In my years with the YMCA I thought a lot about how to lead my staff team, how to build a healthy culture, communication strategies, accountability, problem solving, and more. I also thought a lot about how to lead and engage my Board of Directors. But I didn’t think much about the crossover between these two functions of leading a nonprofit organization.
In fact, I thought these two areas of my job were very, very different. Now that I have some distance and my thoughts have evolved, I see that there are more similarities than there are differences. I’m going to spend the next few articles looking at the similarities and what we can learn from them.
One of the most important roles of a leader is to create a healthy culture for their team. In the nonprofit sector, we usually think that this means our staff team. Right? A healthy staff culture is crucial to delivering quality services, caring for our constituents, and ensuring our staff are nurtured. Logic would tell us that the same is true for our volunteer teams, and even our governance volunteers.
Think for a moment about your Board of Directors. How would you describe the culture of your Board team? Are they uber professional? Super laid back? Well connected to one another? Eager to help? Something else? Take a moment to jot down all the words that come to mind when you are thinking about the characteristics of your board.
Once you can describe the current culture of your board, I’d like for you to think about how that compares to the culture of your staff team and/or the agency as a whole. Are they similar or different? Are the similarities intentional or by happenstance? There is nothing that says they have to be the same or different.
After you do a little work to define the culture of your board and how it compares to the rest of your organization, a good next step is to decide if what you have is what you want. This project is an excellent way to engage volunteers in defining and creating the board culture that is best for your nonprofit! Your Board Governance or Board Development Committees can dig into everything from the board meeting agenda or room set-up to onboarding and engagement of the volunteers.
The skills and strategies that create a healthy culture for your staff are pretty much the same for creating a healthy board culture.
- If your organization has not gone through the process of clarifying and understanding your values, that’s a great first step! If you have gone through this process, the next step is to consider how they relate to your board. The values for the organization do not have to be exactly the same as the values for your board. They can be the same, similar, or even different. It’s based on the needs of the organization.
- For example, an organization that serves children may have a very lighthearted culture among its staff. Perhaps the kids need a positive atmosphere. At the same time the organization may be helping children escape really horrible situations. In that case the board likely has some very serious topics to discuss. The culture of the organization may be light and fun, while the culture of the board could be serious and more stoic.
Decide the culture is important
- The main ingredient in any healthy culture is to be thoughtful about the experience of those involved. By simply being intentional about the type of culture you want – you’re taking a huge step towards creating a great experience for your Board team.
- A healthy culture requires that the organization and its leaders decide that the culture is a priority. You cannot create a positive culture without first deciding that it matters. When it comes to culture, the biggest problem I see is that leaders ignore the importance of being intentional about this piece of their organization.
It starts at the top
- When it comes to the staff culture, the Executive Director or CEO sets the tone. They define the values and decide that the culture is important. However, with the Board of Directors, it’s not just about the Exec, it’s a combination of the Exec and the Board President. Between the two of them they drive the culture. The Exec connects it to the operations of the organization, and the Board President is the one who sets the tone for the governance volunteers.
Listening and Caring
- Creating a culture involves listening to what is going on with the members of the board. And not just listening, but also genuinely caring about how the volunteers are feeling and what their experience is like. This is how you keep your finger on the pulse of what is going on.
- Circling back to #1, once you have established your values, you should talk about them. All. The. Time. Talk about what they mean to the board as a team. Use them when making decisions. Include them in opening thoughts, plan them into board meeting agendas, and use the language as you work to create the culture you want and need.
As mentioned earlier, a Board Development or Board Governance Committee is an excellent group to tackle this project. Their role is to ensure healthy board dynamics. If you do not currently have a committee focused on the growth, direction and health of your Board of Directors, consider starting one and making this their first initiative. You could even start it out as a task force, with growth into a full committee coming next.
Would you like help evaluating the culture of your Board of Directors? Or, do you want to start a Board Development Committee of your own? Let’s visit! Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call today. Let’s connect!
Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.