Nonprofit Boards and Change: Center for Excellence in Nonprofits Program

Change - Goldfish

One June 15, I attended Champions for Change: How to Orchestrate Strategic Level Transformations presented by Susan Meier of BoardSource for the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits. Susan began by providing us with three examples of for-profit corporations that either successfully transformed or failed to transform, setting the stage for an examination of nonprofit governance and the responsibility to address change.

Susan then identified the characteristics required to move from a responsible board to an exceptional board: thoughtfulness and intentionality, action and engagement, knowledge and communication (see Governance Matters from the Council on Foundations). We next workshopped a fascinating case study: The Colorado Symphony Orchestra turnaround. Some keys to the turnaround (still in progress): change in leadership, shift in the way business is done, embracement of technology, and a new cash flow mgmt plan.

We then focused on some hallmarks of a high performing board. These included:

  • Addressing difficult decisions directly, acting boldly & nimbly.
  • Recognizing culture trumps everything, including strategy (create a culture of inquiry, not politeness).
  • Valuing candid but respectful communication (consensus is not necessary for board decisions).
  • Ensuring form follows function in setting up governance structures (including committees).

Board Exercise Example: Invite the board to identify changes, trends, and shifts in the environment that excite or concern them. This is something I’ve promoted for boards to put on the agenda and do regularly (even for 5 minutes at the start of every meeting).

The program got very interesting when Susan instructed us to come up with the tough questions every board needs to ask. Here are some of the questions that were raised:

  • Is our mission still relevant? 
  • Is our business model sustainable and what void would be created if we went away? 
  • If we founded our organization today, what would it look like? 
  • What is our succession plan (executive and board)? 
  • Are we really reaching out to younger generations?

Next, we discussed 10 steps a board can take to help ensure the future of their organizations:

  1. Remain relevant by asking the hard questions. 
  2. Know your strengths/assets. 
  3. Focus on sustainability. Check out Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability by Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka & Steve Zimmerman
  4. Reach out to younger generations. 
  5. Be distinctive. 
  6. Engage in “collective impact.” See Collective Impact (Stanford Social Innovation Review). 
  7. Embrace technology. 
  8. Take calculated risks. Consider how your board manages risk (e.g., training, written records and policies, insurance, audits, supervision and oversight, protection of assets, conflict of interest enforcement, due diligence). 
  9. Intentionally and strategically recruit the board of tomorrow. Diversify in every way that’s meaningful to your organization. Welcome new generations of leaders. Effectively orient, train, and engage new board members. As Emily tells me, you'll get from the board, what you put into the board members.  I'll add that you should address the needs and the desires of the board members and what they expect out of the board service.  It's okay to recognize that board members are driven not only by altruistic reasons for serving, and you can address some of those other needs (e.g., affiliation, networking, social) while encouraging and facilitating their active engagement in the governance of the organization.
  10. Manage change well.

The focus of the remainder of the program was on change, including the change process, the board's role in leading change (in constructive parternership with the executive), criteria for 'ideal' change advocates, change dynamics (e.g., if you take the pressure off, some people will revert to their old behavior), and managing change.

Thanks to Susan, BoardSource and CEN for a great program.