Getting Your Board on Board

governance leadership ngos
Wednesday, 4 June, 2008 - 09:14

Developing your board, or effective governance as it is commonly known, is a challenge for many NPO’s in the African context.

Developing your board, or effective governance as it is commonly known, is a challenge for many NPO’s in the African context. Wherever I go, it is more the exception than the rule to find a well governed organisation. There are many reasons why we grapple with board development. One reason I believe is because we do not have a tradition of effective governance in the African context born out of our concrete realities on the ground.

Whereas our counterparts in the North deal with an ageing population with an abundance of skills lying around to be recruited onto boards, in the South we have the exact opposite. This phenomenon is exacerbated by an army of unemployed people using their involvement in organisations as a means of job creation. However, it is the task of leadership to overcome these constraints. We have to learn to develop effective boards despite these realities.

Common board challenges:

Whenever I meet directors, I usually hear the following complaints about board members:

  • They do not attend meetings regularly;
  • They want to run the organisation;
  • They want to prescribe to staff how to do their work without them having the requisite experience;
  • They do not support the director when needed;
  • They meet with staff without the knowledge of the director;
  • Some stay on the board for too long without any intention to move on;
  • Board members develop friendships that compromise their objectivity;
  • They do not read reports and almost never provide feedback to the director;
  • They do not assist the director with resource mobilisation;
  • They do not take a keen interest in the work of the organisation;
  • Some board members want to control the finances of the organisation;
  •  Board members use their involvement as a stepping stone into politics or to promote their churches.

Why do we need boards? 

There are many obvious reasons why non-profit organisations need boards. I do not wish to dwell on them here. You know most of them anyway. The most obvious of course is that it holds the management accountable for the resources (financial and material) entrusted to it by the private and public institutions. What you ask for in a funding proposal and what you promise to deliver must be consistent. Your board ensures this.

But there is another big reason why you need a board. It is to hold you accountable to your public image (your vision, mission, objectives, core values) and what you practice in reality ie your true identity. Put differently, what are you doing when no one is watching? From time to time many organisations are put to this test. And many fail miserably. It is a test that comes in many forms. Some members being dishonest, others committing fraud, donor agendas being embraced for expediency to ensure the next funding contract, etc. The real job of an effective board is to protect the organisation against these malpractices.

Three levels of board involvement

To recruit the right board members is not easy in our context. To overcome this constraint I have learnt over the years to approach this challenge by distinguishing three levels of board involvement. Remember, you are first trying to recruit a skill and then to put a face to it. The person only represents the skill/s you are looking for to add relevant value to your vision and mission and generally to relationships in the organisation. Many times we tend to give up on a potential person because s/he is not available for whatever reason such as time, other commitments, etc.

Level 1: active involvement

This is the ideal level at which we would like board members to be involved. This means attending meetings, signing up for sub-committees, visiting the organisation regularly, reading relevant documents, etc. It is always a challenge to get people to commit to this level of involvement.

Level 2: strategic involvement

This level helps you to overcome the first. Remember, you are trying to recruit a skill/s, so when someone is not available at the first level, get them to become a strategic adviser. That means that you do not expect the person to attend all your meetings and commit to all the responsibilities of being an active board member. Rather you can get the person to commit to add value to your organisation by signing up as a strategic adviser. Get the person to commit in writing that s/he will play this role. This shows donors not only what you have in terms of skills, expertise and capacities, but also what you have access to. Whenever you need advice or voluntary services in terms of the expertise of the strategic adviser, you will have access to it.

As an organisational development consultant I am inundated with requests from client organisations and others who would like me to join their boards. I usually decline. But I always offer to act as a strategic adviser. That means I can still help to add value in a way that suits me whether it is offering a free workshop or spending time with a director discussing a particular concern or making referrals when possible.

Level 3: Involvement by association (patron)

At this level you recruit someone with a high level of integrity, who is well-known in the community and has credible influence. The idea is to link your organisation to the ideas and ethos that this individual espouses. You add value to your organisation by association. Finding such a person is difficult and can sometimes be dangerous because you cannot control this person. It is a level fraught with risk. The benefit however is that this person can open doors for the organisation and advocate its vision and mission. This is how it could work:

Recruiting the right board members

Many of the problems that surface when a board starts to collapse can be located at the recruitment stage. Those recruited are not always the most suitable candidates for board involvement. My experience with boards has been that people are recruited because:

  • They had nothing to do in any case
  • They were friends with someone on the board
  • They helped the organisation to fill up the numbers to ensure credibility with external donors
  • False promises were made that the member was not going to be so involved
  • Comradely considerations
  • It was a stepping stone for full-time employment or future job contracts

Some rules on board recruitment:

  • You are recruiting a skill and not just a face
  • A clear recruitment strategy should be in place
  • Cultivating new board members is a continuous process (just like external donors) and not only when existing members plan to resign or when their terms of office expire
  • Set up a sub-committee to coordinate the recruitment process
  • Put in place objective criteria and processes to appoint new board members
  • Make sure new board members are properly inducted into the organisation and that they understand their role in relation to management to avoid role confusion
  • Everybody should be encouraged to cultivate and recommend new board members but only the board approve appointments. Staff members cannot make appointments otherwise it is like a team choosing its own referee!

How to keep your board on board

Your board members should be treated like external donors. They may not provide much financial support but they make it possible for you to access the financial support that you need to run the organisation. If you treat your board like a rubber stamp then you will lose them as soon as they have been recruited. In this case you are using and abusing them and they will definitely not stay on board.

I have already discussed some ideas of building relationships with your board members, but here are some more:

  • Treat them with respect;
  • Be open and honest;
  • Show them that you care about them as people first and secondly as board members;
  • Provide them with practical tasks eg speak at graduations, receiving donors, etc.;
  • Keep them informed;
  • Submit regular short reports. An informed board member is an involved member!;
  • Do not waste their time with unnecessary and useless meetings;
  • Do not let board members do your work for you. You are paid to do it yourself!;
  • Take an interest in the family of board members;
  • If you can afford it, pay board members a sit-in fee or transport allowances when attending meetings or special events;
  • Make sure board members have something to eat after or before meetings.;
  • Allow members to facilitate workshops in relation to the skills they have;
  • Stay in regular contact with your board via e-mail, telephone, fax, sms, etc.;
  • Issue certificates to board members to express gratitude for their sacrifices and involvement;
  • Build relationships for the long term and not just while board members are in the organisation;
  • Send thank you cards (or sms, faxes or e-mails) to thank board members for attending meetings or events;
  • Negotiate and clarify terms of office constantly to avoid members feeling “bad” when they have to leave;
  • Thank your board members whenever you get the opportunity e.g. your annual reports, brochures, reports, public forums, etc.;
  • Allow board members to attend workshops when the opportunity arises. Build their capacity as well;
  • Do not forget the annual event where board members and their families can join you and the staff to celebrate your successes.

Some ideas of where and how to find the right board members

  • Remember, board cultivation (like external donor cultivation) is a continuous process and not simply when you experience a crisis of board membership
  • Ask fellow directors for names of potential board members;
  • Check annual reports of other organisations in your sector for names of board members. Sometimes board members resign from one organisation and do not mind to get involved in another to share their experiences;
  • Check out potential board members when you attend network forums;
  • Advertise in local, regional or national newspapers. This is risky but it is how you manage the process of selection that is important. By advertising (not a widely used practice) you throw the net wide. Be specific in the advertisement about your needs and requirements to limit chance takers or people trying to use your organisation to pursue personal agendas;
  • If you operate on a local community basis, use posters to advertise for board members at strategic places in your community;
  • Use your brochures, personal letters, e-mail, pamphlets and your website (if you have one) to share your need for appropriate board members with the relevant skills.

The process of recruitment and selection

This is normally a stage that most organisations skip. They simply do not spend enough time during the recruitment process. This can lead to frustrations for potential board members at a later stage of their involvement. Remember, the recruitment process of a board member is almost exactly the same as when you recruit a staff member. This is how it works:

  • The candidate must submit a CV
  • Develop a short list of promising candidates
  • Set interview dates with those on the short list
  • Interview short listed candidates and decide on the final candidates
  • Send letters of appointments and relevant documentation
  • Prepare for the first board meeting and prepare the induction process
  • Indicate what the board member’s responsibilities will be (ie how many meetings he/she must attend, any subcommittee involvement, which documents to study, etc.)
  • Indicate a clear term of office (ie how long the board member will be involve in your organisation)

I have found in my experience that the last point is rarely clarified with the result that many board members become dead wood. This causes problems since they will be the ones holding the organisation back in a time when drastic change is called for. They are usually nostalgic about the ‘good old days’. 

The induction process

This process is not taken very seriously in most organisations. And it comes back to you with a vengeance! Learn to take time to induct new board members. Here are some guidelines to help you with an induction process normally led by the director and board chairperson. This is important so that any question that comes up during the process can be addressed immediately.

The board member must receive:

  • Clear tasks and an indication of what is expected from him/ her during his term of office on the board;
  • All relevant strategic planning reports, financial reports and the latest audit report;
  • A list of names of fellow board members, staff and volunteers;
  • Staff contracts;
  • Funding agreements;
  • Rental or lease agreements entered into by the organisation.

The member must be allowed time to meet with staff members and volunteers to find out who is doing what in the organisation. I sometimes find board members who do not even know all the staff members working within a particular organisation. Yet they are required to make decisions about those staff members that can affect their future!

The board must support its director

When a director is newly appointed, he/she may need a lot of support from the board. Needless to say, support should be ongoing. This support should come primarily from the board chairperson. It takes time for a new director to find their feet and the support provided by the board allows the person to settle down. As a newly appointed director, you may have to deal with staff that may not have agreed with your appointment and will try to sabotage you. This is where the board steps in to deal with people who try to make your life difficult. In my experience, this is how a board and in particular the chairperson, can support you to become more effective:

  • Make special time to meet with you eg a breakfast or lunch time meeting to discuss issues that cannot be addressed at a board meeting
  • Be available at all times when needed (obviously not in the early hours of the morning!)
  • Attend all board meetings and read all relevant documents before such meetings
  • Spend time with you to plan those meetings to make it more effective and efficient
  • Stand in for you (especially public events) when you are too busy
  • Visit the office regularly for informal conversations
  • Do not meet with staff and volunteers unless it is confirmed with you beforehand
  • When difficult decisions have to be communicated to staff and volunteers, accompany you to staff meetings to explain certain decisions
  • Spend quality time to evaluate you and give you constructive feedback
  • Remove any obstacle that can impede you in the execution of your work

Please note:

A director who feels insecure and incompetent in his job will always try to play board members off against each other or even play staff off against the board. This is a tactic aimed at protecting him/herself and not advancing the interests of the organisation. Board members must be careful not to fall into this trap. This can also happen where a director or staff members are seeking special favours from board members and will go out of their way to undermine the director. This is dangerous. Board members must refuse to become tools in pursuance of petty agendas. This is not good for the health of an organisation. Secret meetings and conniving only create suspicion and mistrust that will cause everybody to suffer in the end, including the beneficiaries and the connivers themselves.

In my experience, many board members feel honoured to serve on boards. They will usually be approached by a director to serve on a board. What many do not understand is that as soon as they start serving on a board, they are entrusted with a power that can make or break an organisation. The director is distributing power to the board, even the power to fire him if he is incompetent, lazy and not performing according to expectation. However, in my experience, when problems related to director performance surface, you may find that board members will rather resign instead of getting rid of the director. This is especially true where board members are fairly new and afraid that they may be held accountable by public institutions or auditors for corruption committed in their name. When this happens, you can be sure that the organisation will be dealt a death blow.

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