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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, February 25, 2018 1:00 am

Nonprofits should expect more from boards

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Nonprofit organizations can make more progress if they know how to get the most out of their boards.

The leadership from board members should involve meaningful and lasting contributions, said Vernetta Walker, chief governance officer and vice president of programs for BoardSource, which provides training and education.

She is one of dozens of leaders Nicole Farkouh has interviewed for her Visionary Leaders Summit. The 25-minute videos with each leader are being shared via email through March 2 for individuals who signed up for the free online event.

Walker said she's talked to numerous organizations whose board members felt their skill sets weren't being used.

One organization, in contrast, had a scorecard where board members could earn points by completing various responsibilities, such as accompanying a CEO to see a potential funder, she said. Creating a list of opportunities almost became a competition among board members, who found more ways to use their skills to benefit the organization.

“There are too many organizations that equate governance with being able to write a big check,” Walker said.

High-functioning boards need individuals who will come in, pay attention and have a certain humility, willing to admit they don't know everything, she said. Getting the right people on board is critical.

“If you don't have the right people, you can only do so much,” said Walker, whose nickname is the Governance Gladiator.

But successful organization-board relationships, particularly with the top executive of the organization, require trust and communication. It's essential to operate in an “environment of no surprises,” Walker said.

Regular communication helps build relationship, whether by phone or email. The discussions can include questions such as “What am I doing that you appreciate?” “What do you wish I would stop?” and “What do you need from me?”

Planning, strategy

Board members should be able to help companies and organizations with planning and strategy, keeping in mind the two are different, said Melissa Mendez Campos, a partner with California-based La Piana Consulting.

“All the planning in the world won't get you where you want to go without strategy,” said Campos, whom Farkouh also interviewed for the summit. Her topic was “How to Use Strategy to Cut Through the Noise During Times of Rapid Change.”

Campos suggested several key principles to follow. Organizations should look at and know themselves – what they care about and what matters. They should know the market and be able to build on their strengths – what they do different or better than anybody else.

Even the process for decision-making has to be explicit and clear, she said. And along with knowing strengths, organizations have to know what their strategic opportunities or potential threats are that could have impact.

Campos spoke of one organization that came up with a one-page cheat sheet for a more in-depth plan. It can be helpful to “keep it alive,” part of everyday conversation, as well as to ensure the vision is linked to budgets and performance assessments of the staff.

Strategy, Campos said, is an ongoing task that requires flexibility from continuous dialogue. That takes commitment, she said, but it's also rewarding “because you're having more high-level conversations.”

Collaboration with other entities can be part of strategy. But organizations should first focus on what they're trying to achieve, not what the collaboration will look like, Campos said. Function comes before form.

To share a thought, a favorite quote or other wisdom about leadership, email Lisa Green at Lead On also appears online as a blog at