At the mid-point of this year’s dog days of summer, temperatures were especially high in and around the executive offices of Temple University. A growing rift was reported between then-Temple president, Neil Theobald, and members of the university’s Board of Trustees. In the end, Theobald stepped down in late July about a week after the board unanimously voted no confidence in the president. The culprit of this discord? According to The Philadelphia Inquirer (July 15, 2016), members of the board faulted Theobald for “failing to consult them on key issues…”
Ours is not to debate the merits of this particular scenario; but rather to take a moment to reexamine the delicate, essential, and powerful relationship that exists between nonprofit leadership and their boards. What is the right formula for keeping a board informed? How do you manage changing expectations? How much communication is necessary? How much interplay should there be between staff and board members?
We spoke with Steve Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, for some insights. Steve has served as executive director since 2006 after 11 years as the Economy League’s deputy director. He works with a staff of ten and with a board of 65 senior, private-sector leaders from the region’s leading companies and institutions.
Fairmount Ventures: What do you strive for in your board relationships?
Steve Wray: No surprises. As executive director, I need the board’s full support or their agreement to see how a new initiative or approach will play out. I have found that board members want to understand and share input on the organization’s vision and direction; have deep knowledge of the big-picture budget and issues; understand where they can be helpful; and know that we are staffed well to implement.
FV: In what areas do you most often engage your board?
SW: Board members want to understand the issues at hand, have an awareness of our decision-making process and vet both of those. You can’t ask them to make the decisions for you but rather to inform and provide input on the decisions you are facing. In certain areas, such as fundraising and governance, our board members become more engaged in implementation. If there are other areas where a board member has a particular interest or expertise, s/he might become more engaged there as well.
At 65 members, we have a particularly large board, so we engage in more detail with the management committee, which consists of 25. I meet monthly with my board chair and two vice chairs; I call my chair often for more frequent check-ins. Our senior staff are connecting with leaders of various board committees outside of formal, board meetings. Operating committees meet three or four times a year; the management committee meets quarterly.
FV: How do you prepare for change or significant announcements with your board?
SW: The board should be “read in” on all major issues. I start with my board leadership and define “reading in” this way: Here’s the issue. Here’s what I know. Does this require a full board discussion or shall I move forward? I also find it’s helpful to have someone on staff who will tell you when you need to take something to the board.
FV: How do you manage expectations?
SW: There’s certainly an art and a skill to the relationship. I have found that, particularly with new board chairs and new members, you can strike the right balance by sharing more and asking for more input early on in their tenure. It’s also important to understand the issues that your board might want to weigh in on. Two examples: When the City was advocating to get the soda tax passed, the Economy League was called on to testify. That was a major issue, still is, so I checked in on that with my board chair before proceeding. (She agreed that we should testify.) When a reporter called to get our perspective on the King of Prussia expansion, I went ahead and did the interview – no check-in needed because we had undertaken and published our research on that topic already.
FV: What do you do if you feel a board member(s) is overreaching?
SW: I would engage my board chair to intervene with that board member together to understand what’s motivating the overreach. It might be due to something s/he is not comfortable disclosing in a full board meeting; or s/he might be bringing experiences from other boards to yours. Whatever the reason, you want to communicate more – not less – to resolve the issue.
Top Tips for Board Relations
- Work shirt sleeve to shirt sleeve to keep board members informed and engaged.
- Periodically evaluate your board make-up; it should reflect the stakeholders, mission, geography and aspirations of your organization.
- Don’t be a single actor. Share the podium with your board leadership in good times and not-so-good times.
- Organizations encounter problems all the time. Join forces with your board for the advice and direction to resolve them together.
- It takes a lot of time and energy to achieve real collaboration and trust with boards. There just aren’t any shortcuts.