Creating the 21st Century Board

By     May 8, 2013

Editor’s note: Over the next two weeks, we’ll feature posts around the final convening of our Chief Executive Program, The Summit at Sundance. We invite you to participate in an online discussion of four major issues facing the cultural field. In this post, Alorie Clark introduces the second problem statement.

Governance is a certainly a hot topic for the nonprofit sector. Many organizations are finding that the traditional governance model isn’t working so well, sometimes leading to more stress than success. When considering all that affects and contributes to the success of a nonprofit board, how does an organization achieve effective governance?

Problem to solve: Create the 21st century board.

Within the conversation of nonprofit governance, there are typically four main areas of consideration:

  1. Board engagement: How much should the board be involved in operations? How often should the board meet? What should be reported at the meetings? Most executives hope to report enough to their board to keep them engaged and interested in the work of the organization, but not so much where they inhibit the executive’s ability to work effectively and with authority. This conflict can sometimes leave board members uninformed, uninterested and bored. In Governance as Leadership, Richard Chait suggests reframing their duties as a way to keep them engaged, using three governance modes: fiduciary, strategic and generative.
  2. Fundraising is also a big issue in nonprofit governance. Should a board be required to fundraise? Many boards have a “give or get” policy. But some organizations are struggling with how well this works. Should all board members have the same fundraising requirement? How does this limit the pool for potential board members?
  3. Roles and Functions: The issues of engagement and fundraising can be addressed once a board becomes clear about its function in relation to the organization, and the role it aims to serve. What size board does your organization need? Should all board members have a governing or fundraising responsibility? How can the expertise on the board be maximized? Are members serving in roles that are interesting to them?   Michael Klausner & Jonathan Small suggest “Failing to Govern?” (SSIR, 2005) that all board members should not be asked or expected to perform the same roles, suggesting instead a “Bifurcated Board.”
  4. Diversity: Once a board clarifies its function and members’ roles, it can determine where they are lacking in terms of membership, and who it needs to help further the mission of the organization. A board should also assess if the community they are serving is reflected on their board. Diversity will look different for each board, and each organization should determine what role diversity should play in its governance. Is it adding someone of a different race? A different background? Or neighboring community?

How would you address these aspects of governance?  Next week, leaders from The Chief Executive program will investigate what will make take governance to the next level in the 21st century, and will share their thoughts here on Field Notes. We invite you to join the conversation.