One of the informative panels at the Stepping Up Matters Conference on April 22 was Board Leadership and Board Dynamics: How Boards Lead in Difficult Times, moderated by Barbara S. Miller, Senior Partner, Management Solutions for Nonprofit Organizations and co-chair of the Board Leadership Project of Governance Matters.
The panelists were:
Jo Anne Page, President and CEO, The Fortune Society
Julie Horowitz, Board member, The Fortune Society
Jeanne Bergman, Consultant and co-chair of the Board Leadership Project
Michael Davidson, Principal and Board Coach, and board chair of Governance Matters.
The panel focused on the lessons to be learned from The Fortune Society, as the board and executive director responded to the challenges of reduced operational funding in the midst of a major capital expansion.
Jeanne Bergman grounded the discussion with a description of Governance Matters' Board Leadership Project (BLP), which surveyed dozens of organizations for exemplary board leadership, and then did intensive case studies of 14 boards.
The BLP found that, while boards always have an obligation to govern, at critical moments, they must also step up and lead. Such times are typically periods of crisis, growth, and transition.
When individual board members, and boards as a whole, respond to these urgent opportunities by partnering with staff to provide strategic vision and mission-driven priority-setting, their organizations are likely to emerge from the crisis stronger and more effective. By supporting executive staff, who may face painful reductions in service and staff, and maintaining a long-range focus, the board can keep the organization on an even keel.
The current economic crisis tests our findings, and we see no difference: board leadership can be a critical element in organizational survival and growth. This is a time when boards need to cut deadwood, streamline procedures, and eliminate make-work.
Julie Horowitz , who has been on the board of The Fortune Society for about one year, described how she was welcomed onto and became deeply engaged in the work of the board.
The recruitment process
Her interview with Jo Anne Page and Betty Rauch, the board chair, was like a good job interview. They were interested in her experience, skills and interests, and introduced her to The Fortune Society by inviting her to attend a client meeting where she directly experienced the organizational values of honesty and transparency. She felt she was being treated like a potential funder.
She was quickly offered opportunities to engage: work on committees, deliver a staff workshop, invite friends to events, and meet with the development staff.
Julie's first board meeting included an impassioned discussion of a controversial policy. She was fascinated by the different perspectives expressed and how comfortable the members of the board were in being open and honest.
She left feeling that she wanting to continue to be a part of their conversation. Equally appealing was the call she received from Jo Ann Page, who wanted to know if Julie had any questions or concerns about the debate she had observed.
Jo Ann Page described how she and the board chair created the environment that Julie has found so engaging and that enabled this very diverse board (50% of its members are formerly incarcerated persons), to successfully address questions of organizational sustainability.
- A value-based commitment to include and respect the strongly held opinions of board members, who are deeply committed to the mission, provides for intense, honest, and serious discussions.
- Major capital decisions included a series of carefully planned go/no-go benchmarks that allowed the board to take one step at a time, which made a big step less risky.
- Achieving their first "Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)" -- the purchase and renovation of their first residence for clients -- has made the board both more engaged and confident in their leadership. The process itself strengthened the board, sharpening their recruitment efforts and raising the bar for board participation.
- Although many board members could not make substantial financial contributions, they could nonetheless participate in making important financial decisions.
- In anticipation of a financial downturn, the board and staff engaged in a strategic planning process to develop "what-if" scenarios for which they decided what core programs must be sustained, and identified those programs that would be cut back if financial support was reduced.
- At the same time, the board and staff developed parameters to delineate which decisions could be made by management and which decisions would require board participation.
Comments by the other panelists
1. The experience of the Fortune Society board reinforced Reynold Levy's theme in his opening address: providing board members with an opportunity to make significant contributions to a mission of importance to them is a gift that motivates even greater effort.
2. The board of the Fortune Society is strengthened by the fact that it has the same values as the organization: transparency, respect for the unique contribution of every individual, and a belief that challenge brings out the best in all. The board "walks the walk."
3. The importance of a board's culture -- its shared understandings, values and ways of operating -- in the exercise of leadership cannot be underestimated, e.g.
- Starting meetings on time
- Preparing for meetings
- Allowing members to complete their thoughts
- Seeking and respecting the opinions of all members
- Expressing opinions in the meeting, not outside of it
- Respecting the recommendations of committees
- Accepting personal responsibility for achieving board objectives
4. Board leadership does not include micromanaging the executive director. The board shouldn't try to do the executive director's job but, rather to make her/his job easier by raising funds, setting mission-based priorities, assisting in downsizing when needed, and determining the feasibility of growth and new opportunities.
Even in times of uncertainty, Fortune Society found that strategic planning was a critical tool for success. Few organizations have the foresight shown by Fortune Society to anticipate a downturn and plan accordingly. Starting a planning process in the downturn will create a context and a forum in which to:
- Focus on the long-term, so short-term decisions are made in a long- range context.
- Stay connected to the organization's mission.
- Establish mission-based priorities.