Have Passionate Meetings

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With so many nonprofits having remarkably similar board-staff dynamics, why don’t we see more creativity in the way boards are organized and operated?

First, the circumstances that stimulate innovation are often not present. In the absence of a crisis, the CEO often lives by the maxim, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” and fears the risks of initiating the change from below. The board chair often fears getting over-involved unless there is a leadership transition, which often consumes the available board time and attention instead of board development.

Second, the effort-to-results ratio on board improvement projects is low. I have seen many multi-month, even year-long, processes that have labored mightily and produced minor changes that are often high maintenance to sustain. Also, with board revitalization projects, one faces a central dynamic of boards: the spikiness of interest, attention and passion, all too often oscillating between too little and too much.

Staff come to mirror this rhythm, getting through a board meeting (sometimes referred to as “feeding the beast”) and turning their attention to real work until the gravitational pull of the next board meeting looms. My observations of this board-staff dynamic are as follows.

The cycle begins with staff developing an agenda. Often these items are too separate from the significant issues they are worrying about—it takes courage to engage one’s board on issues that one does not fully understand and when one does not already have the answers. Once the board agenda and materials go out, staff enjoy a brief dip in engagement while a few board members begin to think about the topics. If the meeting is run well, with interaction on significant issues, both board members and staff get energized. Immediately afterwards, staff return to ongoing work that was put off getting ready for the board meeting, while board members often feel a mix of heightened interest and guilt that they don’t give enough to the cause. This latter period can be harnessed by linking individual board members to issues they particularly care about and where they have skills, relationships or insights that are relevant.

Governance is often all too boring, administrative, trivial and overly controlled by the executive staff (a CEO once boasted to me that he can write the minutes before a meeting takes place). If the routine work can be minimized and bundled into consent agendas and the staff can risk raising real issues of significance to the organization, and design meetings more like a workshop than a meeting (mixing individual, small groups, large group discussions), people come alive. Like a good book club, people should walk away from such encounters feeling smarter, more committed, and more connected to others and to the mission through active engagement.

My concern with the governance design of the Center Against Spouse Abuse (CASA) is the excessive splitting of its governing and funding functions—perhaps to the point of stereotyping people with money. I have the sense that this growing network of people who get involved in the Peace Breakfast truly know and value the work of CASA or parts thereof, and that they want to be engaged in ways that fit their skills (as evidenced by the examples of volunteer legal, marketing and data entry help).

I think the insight about “You’ve got to keep developing because people get bored … how can we keep people’s interests” provides a clue. Attention and passion are wildly valuable resources, and if these elements are alive, money will follow.

Thomas N. Gilmore is vice president of CFAR (the Center for Applied Research, Inc) located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the author of Making a Leadership Change.