In an "umbrella" agency or coalition, membership may be extremely diverse in language, culture, experience, size and specific goals. To be effective, those diverse factions must be brought together.
One such agency has created a successful model for both board operations and program development to incorporate and build on diversity. The key to its success: a strong committee/task force structure powered by passion for the agency's overall mission, attributes that can be applied to all agencies, not just coalitions.
The board: Believers Wanted
"This is my favorite board," says one board member, who is also treasurer. "It is the most productive, peaceful board I've been on. There is alignment in purpose, mission and values."
The board's members are passionately committed to the "compelling" mission of the organization. "Busy people shouldn't sit on a board unless they are committed to the mission," she says. "Do not sit on a board unless it has value to you." The members of her board are not there because it's "cool" to be on a board or it will further their careers or add to their resumes.
They are believers. And that is how they are selected: by their commitment to the mission and their willingness to be hands-on and hardworking.
It is a productive board, she says, because people are engaged and willing to work with each other within the committee structure. Every board member is on a working committee. Some are inexperienced in the ways of boards and governance but they soon learn through on-the-job experience.
The executive committee is made up of board members who have acquired experience. "The executive committee is small and highly engaged and experienced," the board member says. "People are not put on the executive committee until they have been here 3 or 4 years."
The composition of the board, with representatives from constituent groups, requires that staff members do more fundraising, the executive director notes, but the board composition also ensures that the programs and priorities reflect the needs of constituents.
To offset the lack of fundraisers on the board, the agency has set up a "leadership council," whose members do not want to be decision-makers but who do want to be associated with the agency and who have the connections to raise money.
The board committee structure provides:
- Single-focus attention to each aspect of the agency, such as finance or program;
- Establishment of one-on-one connections among board members;
- Integration of people from various backgrounds, such as the constituents who better understand what it is like to live in a housing project and the banker who understands the bottom line;
- Opportunity for those less experienced with board operation to learn about governance.
When the board is made up of people with widely varied backgrounds and levels of experience, training must be built into the system, the board member says. "You must offer training or it won't work, she says, adding that "[the voice of constituents] is essential." However, to have an impact as fundraisers, the board also must include the corporate voice. "Those are the people we need to influence," she says.
Her bottom line: "The happiest boards represent a broader swath of society."
Constituents: Workers Wanted
The agency's task forces are built around issues: housing, education, health care and so on. As an umbrella organization, its members represent different aspects of the community served, and vary by the size and experience of the organization itself. Members join the task force that is most important to them. But they can't be "paper members," says the executive director. Everyone is required to contribute to the agency's projects by turning up at events, contacting elected officials or stuffing envelopes.
Each task force is facilitated by a staff member, who keeps members up to date between meetings. The facilitator also provides training to members of the task force.
"We make space for new and emerging groups," the executive director says. "We provide leadership development, capacity building and training ... Policy flows out of the task forces, which are the perfect vehicles to build expertise, capacity and influence."
In exchange for hard work, task force members have a say in deciding the organization's positions and strategy, the executive director says. And they feel empowered because they are part of the successes of the larger group.
In addition, the task forces, like the board committees, build one-on-one relationships, integrate people from different backgrounds, and concentrate discussion and strategy on one area of need.
Rules of the Road
With both board committees and constituent task forces, rules apply that create the culture of the organization; it is a culture that unites people.
- Accommodate differences, whether in language, culture, or experience.
- Encourage everyone to speak up.
- Everyone works.
- Hold people accountable for their commitments, whether it is to bring 2 people or 200 people to an event.
- Recognize effort.
- Make sure participants realize they are part of something larger than themselves; keep them informed about all the organization's projects, not just the one they are working on.
More information on board culture, click here.
The role of funders, according to the board member, is to support capacity building and to be open to new ideas from within the grantee organization. Do not, she cautions, impose your agenda as a funder on an grantee. The executive director adds that capacity-building grants pay for "the most pressing things," such as board and task force retreats, the very things that foster a productive culture and make it possible for many voices to be heard.