Board Transformation at Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City, Inc.
Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City, Inc. (CSCS) successfully navigated the transition from a 54 person board, comprised exclusively of member organizations, to a mature governing board of 27 that includes service providers, community members and corporate leaders.
CSCS was originally founded as an advocacy group, convening providers to address contractual negotiations and programming issues with the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA). As such, its board was comprised of senior administrators from member agencies who reviewed the government's policies towards aging, and any contractual issues affecting their funding and programs.
Every month brought a new crisis between the providers and DFTA, and board meetings often lasted several hours. The board's activist stance enhanced the agency's stature as "the" place to be for a provider of services to the elderly, and CSCS succeeded in strengthening those relationships. Networking at board meetings was a primary activity, and the business of managing the agency came second to its focus on self-advocacy and convening membership.
In the early 1990's, CSCS engaged its members in a strategic planning process, the second in its history. Motivated in part by the loss of two founding board leaders, CSCS decided to engage consulting professionals to help them reorient their administration and governance to become more professional.
The strategic planning activities of the late 1980's and early 1990's readied the agency to undertake an even more comprehensive strategic planning initiative from 1999-2002. This process led to fundamental changes in how CSCS is governed and operates. The plan was developed with technical assistance funded by United Way of New York City. The board recognized that it needed to perform more efficiently, and to help CSCS move from being primarily a networking nexus to a more mission-driven, advocacy organization.
The president of the board was a leading advocate for bringing changes in the governance structure at CSCS. She had been a social worker and also was a philanthropic leader, and she knew that it was imperative to diversify the board particularly with regard to bringing on representatives of the corporate community. Some members of the board joined her in recognizing that fostering relationships among providers was not the business of the board, and that the board needed a more broad-based membership to help the agency expand its vision and strengthen fundraising efforts.
Through a highly dedicated effort of a small, well-respected and diligent strategic planning committee including the president and members from the provider and corporate sectors the by-laws were redrafted to create a governance committee structure, with a clear charge and procedures for each committee. The nominating committee became the board development committee. This committee took on the task of reducing the size of the board over time, and to identify and recruit new members with more diverse backgrounds and skills. The committee also outlined ways for longstanding members to exit the board but continue their voluntary involvement through participation in applicable task forces or action committees.
The committee introduced the idea of term limits, which directly affected the balance on the board between representatives of member agencies and others. While the outcome was to retain a majority of representatives from provider agencies on the board, the process led to both a reduction in the total board, and the inclusion of more members from the corporate community. Peers were engaged to approach long-standing board members and to encourage them to rotate off the board. Committee membership remained open to past board members.
The transition of the board from membership to full governance took place over a three year period and continues to this date. At each juncture, the strategic planning committee invited people to express their hesitations, worries and concerns. Honest, sometimes intensive discussions ensued, allowing members to identify problems and explore resolutions before moving ahead. The leaders took care to acknowledge the work that the founding generation had done in establishing the agency, recognizing that their contribution was equally important as the current work preparing for the future.
A dramatic outcome of the strategic planning and change process is that the business of the charity is now the substance of the CSCS board meetings. Meetings are now one hour long and starting and end on time. The agenda and reports are distributed in advance, and there is no discussion of committee work at the meetings. Votes are conducted only on resolutions. Both board members and the executive director speak of a warm, collaborative spirit that has been cultivated through this strategic planning and change management process.
Summary of Key Ideas
The case demonstrates the following key ideas for helping an inactive board become engaged and productive:
- Board members must understand and be passionate about their organization's vision and mission.
- Board members need to be actively engaged in strategic thinking and planning.
- The importance of the partnership between the board chair and the executive director, who work in tandem to effect change on the board.
- Funders and consultants or other experts can help, especially in times of transition.
- Fundamental change requires a long period for the transition to be successful.
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