Boards that are exemplary for their adherence to best governance practices have certain identifiable traits. But this is no accident—they have taken steps to elevate their practices and maintain them at the highest level.These high-performing boards often exhibit a common set of traits:
- The first trait is one of the most important: full board involvement and a sense of engagement and participation. Behind any front-page article about a nonprofit that has had serious issues there is almost always an inside boardroom story. Often it involves an autocratic or insular board chair, or there was an executive committee that did everything and essentially rendered the rest of the board little more than window dressing. Whichever way it plays out, the full board was left out and simply wasn’t engaged.
- Next, a respect for process and a focus on results that further the institution’s mission. Respect for process
means ensuring that the board has strategic plans in place; that it has and adheres to bylaws; and delegates
meaningful work to committees that function within a sound structure that enables them to get things done.
- Board members should think of themselves as innovators. The heart and soul of innovation is being willing to fail. When boards embrace this, they learn to say, “We’re prepared to take these chances—to take some new directions—knowing failure is a possibility, and wherever possible we agree to fail fast, learn our lesson and move on.”
- Recognize the difference between strategic focus and management overreach. Strategy is first and foremost a responsibility of the board—operational micro-management is not.
- Have an effective partnership with the executive director or CEO. One of the core responsibilities of a board is to determine the mission and the vision of the organization, but the staff leader should partner in this exercise.
All boards should, in principle, aspire to a place in the upper tiers of governing bodies. But what does excellence mean for a nonprofit board and how is it measured? More important, how does a board benchmark itself as it works toward that goal?