We invest in a healthy, engaged board
We invest deeply to cultivate a healthy, engaged board, refusing to treat governance as a necessary evil. We pursue active unity and diversity within the board, ensuring that all stakeholders are represented and that expectations are high, clear, and mission-aligned.
Nonprofit organizations often treat governance as a distraction from the true mission.
If a healthy board could be summed up as high trust plus high engagement, most nonprofit boards are low on one or both attributes. High-trust, low-engagement boards passively assent to the will of the CEO, failing to provide the diverse perspectives, depth of contribution, or committed stewardship of his or her leadership that are essential to the organization’s health. CEOs learn to treat this kind of board as a kind of super-volunteer focus group—providing encouragement and input but little other value.
Low-trust, high-engagement boards commonly devolve into factions, each of which sees its role as protecting the interests of their constituents against competing interests; members regard the senior executives or other board members as potential antagonists; and the CEO experiences the board as meddling and counterproductive to the strategy and operations of the mission.
Even in boards with more collaborative intent, members are often unsure of their role and purpose or isolated from organizational realities, and are therefore unable to offer real strategic value or accountability. There is little iron-sharpening or mission advancement within board meetings, and governance is characterized by confusion, anxiety, or passivity.
Instead, we long for our board’s guidance and oversight to be among our organization’s greatest assets.
1. In the same spirit of telling an integrated story, we practice transparency and accountability in our governance processes, with no secrets or surprises between the CEO and the board. The CEO and board chair channel the board’s productive attention within a spirit of openness to all input. Annually, the board conducts a self-assessment, as well as an evaluation of the CEO. We set clear goals and speak truth in these settings, knowing that a rebuke from a friend is a gift.
2. We cultivate our board members as senior mission leaders. We thoughtfully steward their time and gifts, providing them the information, experiences, clarity, and relationships they need to best serve their role in guiding the mission.
3. The board and CEO lead from a posture of mutual trust, in which the board respects the role of the CEO, and holds him or her responsible for implementing the mission of the organization. They avoid unhealthy direct engagement with other staff members that could cause confusion around the priorities or direction, and instead focus communication through the CEO.
4. We recruit our board to include representation and meaningful influence from all stakeholder groups, including those closest to the delivery of our mission. We refuse to recruit board members who can fill gaps in our expertise or giving capacity but are not aligned with the deepest values of the organization.
5. We cultivate authentic, mutually appreciative relationships across the lines of board, donors, staff, and stakeholders. They work together in programs and public events, and invest time together in private events such as board retreats. We seek creative approaches to ensure that all board members regularly experience and participate in our work.
6. The board takes an active role in the development plan for senior talent, including regular conversations about succession as the organization evolves. The board chair, in particular, carefully attends to the health and sustainability of the CEO in his or her life and work.
THE GOOD NEWS
We hope for abundance as the board faithfully guides the mission and supports and empowers the day-to-day work of the leader. Members will have their own unique, complementary contributions and perspectives; but once a decision is made by the board, they will speak with one voice.
The dangers of the stakeholder gap—making programming decisions from a strategic distance, falsely pitting the expectations of donors against the needs of those we serve—are minimized when meaningful decisions and tradeoffs are guided by a group representing all stakeholders, who are submitted to one another in the mission.
Likewise, an active board guards the organization against the self-congratulation of the nobility trap. Unsatisfied with noble intent alone, they will insist on progress toward impact. They can objectively spot areas where the organization unwittingly exploits by settling for mediocrity or by otherwise taking advantage of people in its programs and practices.
Healthy boards are the principal stewards of the organization’s enduring leadership. They objectively focus on the levers necessary to ensure that the organization outlasts each generation of leaders.
The greatest dividend of a board’s redemptive presence is its effect on the CEO. There is a sustained power for a leader in the deep assurance that their board is committed to their flourishing and the institution’s alike, and will provide both accountability and support toward these ends. They become freer to innovate and take risks, more assured in their mission, less susceptible to blind spots, more likely to share power, and released to rest in the knowledge of God’s sovereignty over their life and work.