Fairmount InSights

recent Stanford study reports, “Over a quarter (27 percent) of directors do not believe their fellow board members have a strong understanding of the mission and strategy of the organization.” Our experience supports these findings pointing to organizations lacking the infrastructure and resources needed to train, set goals, and evaluate what their boards need in order to be effective.

After facilitating hundreds of board development engagements, there are core ingredients that bubble to the surface as necessary for building a strong and effective nonprofit board. These characteristics center around board culture including communication, group dynamics, and accountability to name a few.

Perhaps you’re seeking to strengthen your board and propel your organization to new heights. Consider incorporating the following:

Build an atmosphere based on trust

Relationship dynamics are at the heart of board culture, and sometimes there are tensions between the executive director and the board or the board chair’s power is imbalanced. These types of dynamics can create a culture where board members are disengaged, misdirected, and distracted from advancing the mission of the organization. It’s important that executive directors and board chairs set the tone and create an atmosphere where board members can create relations based on trust, mutual respect and transparency. Executive directors can demonstrate that they value their boards by sharing more information and fostering an open atmosphere.

Invite diverse viewpoints

  • Diverse groups attract a mix of different personalities and communication styles. Embrace and leverage the diversity of thought within your board. At times, it will require patience and an open mind. Use different perspectives from your board, even those that are contrarian, as opportunities for the organization to grow and learn. And for executive directors, the more you can understand the logic behind opinions that dissent from yours, the better decisions you will make and the better prepared you will be to defend your own position, if needed. Create a culture where board members feel comfortable enough to respectfully disagree, as long as they’re able to offer a well-thought out rationale for their opinion.

Ensure individual accountability

  • For more than two decades, Fairmount has spoken with hundreds of board members serving on small, start-up nonprofits all the way to well-established anchor institutions. Board members frequently express that they are not asked to use their skills in a meaningful way that can assist the organization. Nonprofit executives and board chairs can empower board members by increasing responsibility for certain tasks. This demonstrates confidence in board members and allows them to enjoy a sense of ownership of their work.

Assess board effectiveness

  • Many nonprofits fail to evaluate the effectiveness of their board – as a group and for individual members. Unfortunately this fails to deliver critical feedback about strengths, areas to improve, and the potential for new opportunities. Useful board evaluations can include metrics like examining how well the board works together or identifying the collective knowledge of the board and how effectively that information is used. When evaluating individual board members, executives should consider more than resumes and qualifications but also measuring activity during board meetings, the quality of suggestions, and propensity to involve other board members during meetings. Executives who also evaluate their own effectiveness and share that perspective with the board helps display transparency and fairness – ingredients that earn the respect of the board.

Improving board culture doesn’t happen overnight. Culture changes by examining the board’s collective and individual strengths and weaknesses, while taking consistent action to implement changes. The steps above offer a foundation for nonprofits seeking to begin creating a stronger board culture.


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