by Josh Jacobson
Throughout 2018, Next Stage will share the progress of organizations participating in the inaugural year of CULTIVATE, the firm’s incubator for emerging nonprofit organizations in the Charlotte area. The year is broken into 12 modules lasting one month in length. In March, CULTIVATE participants are focused on strengthening the board of directors.
A distinguishing factor of nearly all nonprofit organizations with strong, long-term outcomes is a high-performing board of directors. It is a fundamental building block. Some organizations may be able to overcome a weak board for a period of time, but the passage of time tends to ferret those nonprofits out. There simply is no surrogate for a dynamic, bought-in board.
Nonprofits are certainly unique business models – the governance responsibility for managing these public assets is placed in the hands of volunteer leaders who are rarely compensated for their efforts. These volunteers must work collaboratively to serve the best interests of all people, not just the individuals prioritized in the organization’s mission statement. There is no other system quite like it. Very likely with good reason – it is rife with potential pitfalls.
The March work of CULTIVATE participants has been devoted to designing, launching and maintaining a plan for optimizing their boards. Whether an organization is in its initial stages of building its first board of directors or at an important turning point of moving past the founding board to find new recruits, the March curriculum for CULTIVATE suggests creating a strong governance platform in service to future growth.
The board of directors for most emerging organizations look pretty similar – a handful of individuals sourced from the founder’s network mixed with individuals who have been inspired to join along the way. As the organization experiences success, the design of the board becomes increasingly important – what was once a helpful group of volunteers who were taking their cues from the founder must become a system of leadership through which the founder works. This “flipping” of the board, from following to leading, occurs in nearly every organization that succeeds beyond a decade, and comes with it a design challenge: what is the best way to design a board of directors to serve the long-term needs of the organization?
CULTIVATE participants are exploring methods of structuring the governing board to ensure near-term and long-term success, including the need for other types of volunteer structures, and delineating roles and responsibilities for all volunteers serving in a leadership capacity.
With the governance structure well-articulated, the next step is to attract volunteers who are willing to do the work. This is no easy task and requires thoughtfulness. There is no more frustrating outcome for a nonprofit founder or executive director than to realize too late that the wrong person has joined their board – an activity that can result in not only lost time and resources but potentially also discord and in extreme cases mutiny.
That’s right, I said mutiny, at least in the eyes of the founder who has placed his or her trust in the hands of a group of others. These others are often not the same people who “walked the walk” with the founder in the early days, and can be ill-suited for the ups and downs of the “emerging nonprofit” phase of the organization’s lifecycle.
Too often, nonprofit founders are treating “willingness to serve” as the chief criteria when sourcing board members, and this can be a mistake. In March, CULTIVATE participants are learning how to leverage assets in service to board sourcing. This includes diversifying to span boundaries and building an intentional moves management nomination process encapsulated in a board development plan.
Buy-In & Accountability
It is the word most often aligned with the board of directors – accountability. Since board members are volunteers, it can be mightily difficult to encourage them to own their governance responsibilities. Accountable board members are self-motivated to own their responsibilities, and that usually starts on day one.
Show me a nonprofit board and I am certain it has its challenges with accountability. Only the highest flying boards have created the sort of culture that would vote off the island immediately anyone who wasn’t pulling his or her weight. Encouraging accountability is both a singular and group activity.
CULTIVATE participants are designing onboarding strategy for new board members that prepare these new leaders for decision-making. Participants will also understand a human-centered approach to encouraging accountability and how to implement it with their boards.
Next Up in April: Sourcing & Optimizing Volunteers and Staff (Module #4)