This week’s column is a reboot of a Kelly Otte and I wrote in 2014, but it’s relatively timeless and worth repeating. It highlights our best and worst experiences on a board. I hope sharing this column again will remind board members how important their service is, why serving on the board is an important responsibility, and when to speak out when changes are needed to improve board performance.
Kelly Otte. I thought about some of the most interesting experiences I have had as a board member. I have served on local boards, statewide boards, highly evolved boards, founding boards, membership boards and more . I asked myself this question: “When have I felt most valued as a board member and when have I felt the least valued?”
The most popular is simple. When the work I do is legitimately shipboard work. I’m happy like a clam on boards that have a general plan for the work they do. The best boards I’ve worked with have a one to three year action plan with realistic goals for themselves. I feel valued when there is meaningful work for me to do at board meetings and when I receive enough information in advance to make the best decisions.
I feel valued when the CEO calls me to discuss issues and ask for my expertise. Or ask me to make a call on his behalf. Or to chair a committee. Getting re-elected on certain boards made me feel important because I knew it was the kind of board that didn’t ask people to stay just because they were already there.
Believe it or not, I feel empowered when the organization gives me a badge and when the chairman of the board sends me a note about something I’ve done beyond.
When I have felt the least efficient and valued, it is even easier. I can’t stand to give up my time and it doesn’t mean anything for the well-being of the organization. Either because the ethics of the board are to defer to the executive director in all matters, so that the board waits to be told what to do next, or when there is a small group of board members. in a committee, executive or whatever name it calls, that sits privately with the CEO and makes decisions and hands them off to the larger board.
There is simply nothing worse than asking questions and having a defensive, argumentative ED followed by board members rushing to save them. I feel ineffective on a board that works to crush conflict at all costs. A conflict simply means that we have a difference of opinion.
And I feel empowered when expressing my different opinion is well facilitated, partnering with a group of other hard-working board members to make sure we look at issues from all angles and that we let’s make the best decisions possible.
My worst experience as a board member? Being at a board meeting when a third was screaming, a third was crying and the rest of us were sitting dumbfounded. Better experience? The first official board meeting of the brand new Oasis Center for Women and Girls.
Most embarrassing? Being at a fundraising lunch and the emcee asked the board members to stand up and be recognized and only two of us were there.
Alice Lee: Like Kelly, I have served on various boards, including local, national, founding and sustaining. My most rewarding board experiences have come from my deep commitment to the mission and the feeling that my contributions are helping to move the organization forward.
I also enjoyed serving on boards where I sincerely loved and respected my fellow members, where I had a sense of common purpose and camaraderie, and where the majority was fully engaged. I think it is a privilege to be introduced as a member of the board of directors; it makes me proud of the organization I represent.
I feel less effective on a board when my participation doesn’t make a difference. If you’ve ever been on a board and it sounded like the movie Groundhog Day, where the same day is repeated over and over again, you know what I mean. There is nothing more frustrating than a group of well-meaning people rehashing the same conversation with no final action or resolution.
Paralysis by analysis can be a real problem and often results in losing good people on a board who can’t take another minute of debate or minutiae.
My worst experience as a board member? Being in a conference call meeting when people started yelling to be overheard, called the other board members, and then abruptly hung up.
When people’s feelings were hurt, the board meeting quickly ended. Following this sinking of a meeting, the board members took sides, dividing themselves into different camps. It took months to fix all the issues and over a year to get the board back on track.
Kelly always says that council work is not for the faint of heart and I totally agree. I am happiest on a board of directors when I am committed to the mission, fully aware of and accepting the work I have agreed to do, and motivated to give my time and resources to an organization in which I believe.
Despite the challenges, we enjoy serving on volunteer boards, studying board governance, and finding ways to help nonprofit boards to be as effective as possible for the benefit of people and of the community they serve. As Margaret Mead said, âNever doubt that a small group of thoughtful and engaged citizens can change the world; in fact, it’s the only thing that ever existed.
Kelly Otte, MPA is the founder of Notes on Nonprofits. Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, is the President of Stansbury Consulting. Send your questions and comments to [email protected] and let us know when you’ve felt the most proud or most frustrated with the advice service.
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