It can be easy to forget that the Board plays the most vital role in a nonprofit organization. Ultimately, the Board has oversight over the entire organization and can do such significant things as hire or fire the CEO, approve or not approve the budget, and even dissolve the corporation. Unfortunately, we spend too little time focused on the Board’s roles, responsibilities, and how they should monitor themselves and their progress.
I was recently asked to suggest some ideas on how to introduce “Governance Moments” at Board meetings in order to keep a Board focused on its roles and responsibilities. It is a great question and I believe that Governance Moments are an important exercise that every nonprofit Board can spend a few minutes on.
In addition to a Governance Committee, which every organization must have to monitor the Board’s performance, I’d suggest the following exercises for those moments when the entire Board is together.
1. If you have a Governance Committee, ask them to address an issue at their Committee meeting that they then bring before the entire Board. Perhaps it has been a while since you looked at Committee Structure or Board Job Descriptions. Having the Governance Committee initiate a conversation about those topics will help to reinforce the responsibilities of the Board. This not only helps you engage the Board in a conversation about Governance, but it will also keep your governing documents fresh and up-to-date.
2. Governance Committee or not, before each meeting, have a Board member research a governance topic, then ask them to share their findings with the rest of the Board and lead a discussion about the topic. THIS SHOULD NOT BE THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR. Perhaps the Board could tackle each one of the Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards (as identified by BoardSource) and discuss one responsibility at each meeting. For example, look at number five on the list, the responsibility of monitoring and strengthening programs and services. The designated Board member could perform research to determine what exactly that means and provide case studies of how other organizations honor this responsibility. The Board member would then report back to the larger Board and maybe even ask the Board to grade themselves on their effectiveness.
3. Arrange for the Executive Director and the Board Chair to identify an article on a current topic to include in the Board packet. They should expect everyone to read the article and then choose a Board member to lead a discussion about it. For example, there is a lot of discussion right now about conflict of interest in our national politics: use this conversation as an opportunity to explore conflict of interest and how it applies to the nonprofit sector. There is a lot of misinformation and even lack of understanding in the nonprofit world about what constitutes conflict of interest. (Most people think it is just financial. It can be much more.) The topicality of the subject should encourage people to participate. Hopefully you will have some fruitful discussion about the subject, especially if it is somewhat controversial.
Use a few of the exercises outlined above or come up with your own ideas. I’m not interested in making Board meetings any longer, so these moments can be capped at about 10 minutes. However, it is important for the Board to regularly reflect on its own governance. We assume that CEOs, managers, and staff regularly reflect on their effectiveness and seek out professional development opportunities to improve their work. We should have the same expectation of the most important entity of a nonprofit—the Board.