Lessons from the Field: Dialogue with Fran Barrett
Brown Bag Lunch Roundtable: April 25, 2007
With 27 years of experience as the Executive Director of Community Resource Exchange, Fran Barrett has been on the front lines helping countless organizations build strong and effective Boards. During this roundtable, Fran shared her opinions on various topics related to governance and challenged some commonly held beliefs about Boards.
- Executive Directors often feel that they put a lot of energy into the board and get little back. The cause may lie in the Executive Director.
- Why have boards? Is the board structure an anachronistic vestigial organ from the time when nonprofits were run by volunteers? Although the staff knows the business of the organization, the board provides continuity and additional perspectives.
- Critical to the success of the Board Chair is the ability to work collegially, not congenially. The relationship between the board and Executive Director is a dance. And it only works if they are hearing the same music. The relationship, in addition, is a dynamic one. The board/staff line is constantly shifting as organizational needs change.
- Everything you know about human dynamics applies to boards.
- The commonality of interest among board members is often vague. The differences in temperaments and working styles are enormous.
- There is a lot of focus in the literature on clearly definitions of board roles and responsibilities. That is not the answer. You can do all the right steps and still have a dysfunctional board.
- The perception that the board sets the policy and staff implements it is a complete falsehood. In actuality, the staff thinks they are in charge and have to "handle" the board.
- "The board's job is to raise money" - I don't believe that to be true. Its good if they do, but they cannot be kept in that corner. You cannot maintain the engagement of volunteers like that.
- Model boards (that tell us how many members, or types of members, to have) are meant to help, but they make us feel like we don't have the right board if we don't fit the model. For example, the United Way advocates for a model board, with good intentions, but the community based organizations (CBOs) cannot get there. Organizations at different stages have different needs.
- Boards are not knowledge ready. Board members may be experts in their fields, but there is a real challenge in getting board members who are truly knowledgeable about nonprofit governance. For example, if a person is an investment banker, does that mean they understand financial issues for a small nonprofit?
- Oftentimes people import knowledge from irrelevant experience. They need clarity on what they bring to the table. You cannot have different expectations. This requires an advance commitment during the recruitment process to spend time learning.
- We have to think about training the board like it is staff development. It is not training. It would take at least 3 to 4 sessions to discuss the real issues. Boards hate board training. It is insulting when a consultant comes in and talks about roles and responsibilities.
- The buddy system does not quite work. There is nothing objective about it.
- The responsibility of the board chair is leadership. The chair has to be able to be trained for courage, to live with dissent, and if necessary, be able to allow the board to vote something down. The chair needs to be able to allow and manage conflict. The chair is the heart of the board.
- How to run the board? Frame a question, put people together who can answer it. Do not ask who will participate, pick them. Use more of a taskforce model than a committee model. Or the board can assign the committee a task. Board members tend to be most willing to work when given specific tasks. For example, the Finance Committee: "We lose money on every transaction, so look into it. Investigate the last 6 months and come up with a plan."
- Consider the agenda. Organize it so all regular business approval of minutes, resolutions that are routine is approved at once as part of a consent agenda and quickly move onto (hopefully) more significant and engaging issues.
- Keep it engaging. Boards rise to the occasion in crisis. They want to be needed. Staff sometimes go out of the way to make the board irrelevant. At the board meeting, ask, "What is our biggest challenge this year?" Let us say it is succession planning. Have the whole board engaged (not a committee) to come up with a solution. Break into small groups.
- Make the board meeting so that it is not a time drain, but a time when people can think about issues. (It's not strategic planning, it's strategic thinking.) Give voice to an issue, name it, have a conversation. According to Richard Chait's book, Governance as Leadership (http://www.amazon.com/Governance-Leadership-Reframing-Nonprofit-Boards/dp/0471684201), there are three dimensions of trusteeship fiduciary, strategic, and generative. Say out loud who is in which mode. If you are in that mode you know who you can connect with. The generative mode is the most challenging because it involves collaborative thinking that may be outside the box. In recruiting, the Executive Director should be thinking about the kind of people that they would like to be involved with in such a conversation.
- What does the board do for Executive Directors? They frame the conversation. They bring different perspectives. They are more like partners.
- How can board members know what is going on with the organization? If the board only has a relationship with the ED then that problem will promulgate. EDs have to be willing to build transparency and have confidence in having staff interact with the board and in having a group of people watch over their shoulder.
- Boards cost time. Smaller organizations have smaller boards. If you have the infrastructure, then you can support a larger board. The goal for the Executive Director is to have a small group of like minded, enthusiastic people who want to partner with the Executive Director.
- Boards require vigilance. The board will not be in the Executive Directors face at all times. The board needs to be added to the to-do' list on an ongoing basis. Making calls, checking in, etc.
- Engage stakeholders. A "future search" process is a way to bring the entire organization into one place-board, staff, stakeholders. It allows the board to see itself within a larger context and can help the boar4d develop a higher sense of purpose.
- Fundraising is really the job of the Executive Director. The board can facilitate and help in the process because they can add their own credibility and passion into the process.
- The board should be responsible for managing its own dysfunction. Every board member should see it as their responsibility to control disruptive behavior. They need to name the behavior, maybe add some humor, maybe take a break. It is all fixable.
- How can the Executive Committee be utilized. In addition to its board management function, the Executive Committee can serve as a think tank and be a place to engage in Generative thinking. It can be a place for the Executive Director to test ideas and to be their most honest.
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