FEBRUARY 8, 2017

Six ways to lead as a nonprofit board member, Part 3 of 4

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Leading in the Nonprofit Space

By Joel L. Domingo, Ed.D.

What does it mean to be an effective board member and leader?  This can be lost in the minutiae of meetings, policy, and operations.  While these are all good things, keeping one eye on the immediate and the other towards the possible is the challenge for nonprofit board leaders.

The concept of the nonprofit board of directors comes from the ancient traditions of tribal and ecclesiastical authority.  Who would not want as group of people that were wise, had good character, were discerning, and who wanted the best for the community to have some sort of influence in an organization?   Over time a board’s roles and responsibilities broadened to include the fiduciary and legal burden for an organization.

In North America, some have placed the origins of the modern nonprofit board practices to the colonies and the Massachusetts Bay Company, who had appointed thirteen individuals for their honesty and wisdom to manage the affairs of the organization.

Slowly, this caught on with the early colonial educational institutions, as schools like Harvard and Yale emerged as an exemplar of early board practices.

An organization’s board is a body of wisdom and direction

Over time, issues regarding stakeholder representation, external relations, and resource development got integrated into the board member’s role and thus began the emergence of a new kind of board member—one who was wise, participate in the work of the organization, and if lucky, had wealth to provide resources.  Fast forward to the modern nonprofit organization and while so many layers of responsibility are now cast on board members, there still is that core component of a board being a body of wisdom and direction for an organization.

Furthermore, board members are the bridge between the activities of the organization and the needs of their community. When creating this bridge, what are some practicalities to consider?

A culture of high expectations: how to create it

For one, begin with setting up a culture of high expectations.  Stretch goals and risk are things periodically discussed and as a principle, leadership for the future depends on it.  Furthermore, keeping a perspective that as board members and leaders, though they are the ultimate legal and financial responsible party, knowing that they are there to serve and steward are important.

It is service to the organization first and then stewardship (not ownership) of resources that are good hallmarks.

Here are six ways to be an effective leader on the board:

  1. Understand the role of directors and the board.
  2. Practice stewardship thinking.
  3. Govern rather than manage; help as well as monitor.
  4. Develop a deep understanding of the enterprise. It means many things to many people. It is a story with chapters completed and more to be written.
  5. Do the right things. Ensure the substance of board work is on the mark.
  6. Appoint a great leader, ensure a smart strategy and effective execution, maintain a prudent risk profile, and set a tone of integrity at the top.

“First Who, then What?”

In the book, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” author Jim Collins suggests several principles to put organizations on a trajectory of sustained excellence.  A few of these questions are ones that deal with organizational culture and leading people.  One that strikes me is what Collins terms, “First Who?”  This is a question of leadership and having leaders and board members who are so passionate about the mission of the organization can sometimes outweigh gaps in technical knowledge.  People willing to commit themselves to the mission is key.

In the final installment of this series, next week we’ll continue this conversation on board leadership and delve into the importance of a diverse board.  We’ll also explore some practical ways to build board diversity.

Read Part 1, Leadership to Change the World, and Part 2, Philanthropy: The “love of humankind.

#Leadership can change the world.  Obtain your master’s and doctoral degrees that focus on nonprofit leadership.


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