I’m continuing my little blog project comparing leading a Board of Directors with leading a staff team. I meet so many great nonprofit leaders, who excel at developing and leading their team of employees. Yet they struggle with supporting their board in an effective way. So far I have covered the topics of Creating a Board Culture and “Supervising” Your Board.
For this article let’s dive into holding your board members accountable. Or more accurately, creating the structure so that your board members can hold one another accountable.
Having clear expectations is foundational to holding anyone accountable. When it comes to staff, you establish the expectations through job descriptions, employee handbooks, performance standards and annual goals. Clearly communicating these expectations to your staff team will help set them up for success.
As I shared in the article on “Supervising” Your Board, and went into more detail in here; creating board expectations establishes the foundation of a structure and culture of accountability. Your board has ByLaws, these define how the board functions and what they are legally obligated to. They also have Duties and Responsibilities, which are the generally accepted nonprofit board standards. The board expectations are more specific to the needs of your unique organization.
In a perfect situation, board expectations will be developed jointly by the volunteers and the staff. I generally recommend looking at what the agency needs from its governance volunteers in the areas of:
- Attendance/Service Commitment
- Executive Director/Staff Support
- Community Connections
- Fiduciary Governance
- Intellectual Contributions
- Mission & Outcomes
- Fundraising & Storytelling
Once you determine the expectations needed to advance the work of the agency, the whole board should have the opportunity to review, debate and finally – to approve them. This piece of the process is powerful as it gives everyone the opporutnity to contribute, and ultimately, to commit to what the agency needs from them. Expectations are different from ByLaws in that they are not legally binding (more on that later) and they are easy to update as the needs of the organization change.
Once you have clearly established expectations, use them! These should be included in your board recruiting process and/or packet. Being crystal clear up front about what you need from your board members ensures that you don’t end up with volunteers who don’t understand the organization’s needs or what is expected of them. This may eliminate some very attractive prospective board members. However, it’s better to do this in the beginning than to travel down a long frustrating road of unclear expectations and an inability to drive the governance work of the organization.
Board expectations can be turned into a report card. This is especially useful if your board is working to transition to more accountability and productivity. Tracking attendance, board hours, committee involvement, friend-raising activities, and more will give a quick snapshot of who on the board is meeting expectations, and who is missing the mark. Some boards will even include the report card in the board packet at every meeting, providing for peer accountability.
Since board expectations are not ByLaws, it is not a set of legal requirements. That said, if someone is not fufilling one or more of the expectations, it doesn’t mean you HAVE to do anything about it. Rather, it can be used to drive discussions around each person’s involvement. If a volunteer is really great at storytelling, inviting new people into the organization, and representing the agency in the community, but they struggle to attend board meetings due to timing; it doesn’t mean they need to be booted off. Tracking and knowing this information allows for the ability to have conversations about specific behaviors.
I have one last point on board expectations. The Board Governance or Board Development Committee is a great place for this work to land. That committee can create the expectations, process it through the board, and manage the accountability report card. By proactively tracking and reviewing board engagement, this group can quickly address any issues. It also provides a structure for an annual board evaluation.
Annual Goals + Board Meetings
Creating board expectations is not the only tool for holding board members accountable. Boards that do annual planning or strategic planning will usually come away with action plans and goals. Putting the goals into a tracking document, with assigned accountabilities can be used to monitor progress. Include this document in your board meeting packet and on your agenda. Using the action plan tracking document in combination with regular board meetings is an effective way to monitor progress towards your goals and to hold people accountable.
To Do List + Board Meetings
One last process that can be used to create a culture of accountability on your board is a simple “to do” system. This is also executed through the board meeting structure. When a volunteer commits to something, it is added to the “next steps” portion of the meeting agenda. Those “to do” items are reviewed at the end of the meeting and then included on the next meeting’s agenda and the group checks-in on their progress. This does two things:
- It creates peer pressure for volunteers to follow-through on their commitments, and
- If there are challenges to completing the task, it gives the whole board the opportunity to help problem-solve on how to move forward.
Holding board members accountable can be a tricky thing. Afterall, they are volunteers; what are you going to do, fire them? Assuming positive intent, most people join boards to help advance the cause and make the world a better place. When they do not perform well as a board member, it’s often because they didn’t understand what was expected of them, or they aren’t being held accountable.
By leading your board to create a culture of accountability and structures to support that culture, the great thing is – they hold themselves accountable. Unless your organization is very new, the role of having the “accountability conversations” should fall with the volunteers. Sometimes the Board Governance Committee will address issues, and other times the Board Chair needs to step in and drive the conversation. The Execuitve Director should not be put in the difficult position of “discipining” their board members (AKA – their bosses).
Developing a Board Governance Committee or creating Board Expectations are great strategies for getting the most out of your Board of Directors. If you would like to visit about how to build up your Board of Superheros, 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.