Not all board members have knowledge of governance. Some have the benefit of serving on prior boards. Others are novices.
Seldom does a board say, “We need help.” In theory the directors all attended board orientation. It may be difficult to recognize if a board feels apprehensive about skills.
Conduct a board evaluation to identify insecurities about governance. The board is used to evaluating the budget, and possibly the executive director, but what about their own performance?
One approach is to take time at the end of a meeting to ask, “How do you think we’re doing?” It can be a discussion led by the chief elected officer. To encourage frank discussions, the staff might leave the room.
An alternative method is to send a survey to the board. The mere fact of asking for input promotes continuous improvement.
Elizabeth Krile, CAE, Executive Director of AIA Columbus said, “We use the board evaluation to identify areas that need improvement. For our organization, the evaluation revealed board members did not fully understand the financial statements and the governing documents. So, in 2020, we are addressing these issues through board training, more one-on-one meetings with the treasurer, and spending extra time at board meetings discussing our financial reports and policies.”
Here are common board questions, and solutions to their concerns.
1. How well do I understand and advance the mission?
The mission is the purpose for existence. It may be supplemented with vision and values statements. Directors should be able to recite the mission. All discussions and decisions should consider the mission statement.
2. Do I understand and comply with the governing documents?
Directors cannot govern if they have not received and read the governing documents. When questioned, it is common to encounter directors who have not read the bylaws. Their responsibilities are described in the bylaws and policies. The doctrine of volunteer immunity will be impacted by whether or not they have read the documents.
3. Do I arrive at meetings having prepared?
To fulfill fiduciary duties, there is a need to come to meetings having read reports and formulated questions. When the agenda is distributed it is a good time to read reports.
Questions should be addressed to committee chairs, officers and the executive director. The worst example is a director who shows up at the meeting, opening the board packet at the last minute, skimming it for details. Preparation is a part of board accountability.
4. Do I understand financial aspects of the organization?
Even successful businesspeople may find a financial statement, budget and IRS Form 990 confusing. The board should have access to the counsel of a CPA to answer questions. Directors want to be sure policies and safeguards are in place to protect financial resources.
5. Do we measure performance of the board, programs and committees?
Everything can be measured, from diversity to government relations. Are decisions influenced by groupthink or based on knowledge? A frequent question at the board table should be, “How will we measure success if we adopt this program?” Rely on graphic dashboards to keep the board informed of important data and trends.
6. Am I considering which persons will succeed me on the board of directors?
Directors must identify new leaders. The best way to draw future leaders is to ask, “Will you serve?” Initiate an emerging leaders’ program and turn to committees for a pipeline of volunteers.
7. Do I find board service to be satisfying?
If the leadership experience is not satisfying, what needs to be changed? Does the meeting last too long, lack content, or the board meets too frequently? When leaders are dissatisfied with board service, they quit showing up, come unprepared, or resign.
8. Is the strategic plan the primary roadmap for board action?
Familiarity with the strategic plan is important. The board’s role is to advance the plan. Nearly every discussion and motion should link to the strategic plan. At least annually the board will want to review progress on the plan.
9. Is there trust and respect among board, committees, members and staff?
It takes a team to advance the mission and goals. If distrust exists, it will harm relationships and results. Directors want to communicate respect to all persons. The board and staff should have professional, collegial relations — working as partners to serve members.
10. Do I monitor trends and the external influences to bring insights to the boardroom?
Directors represent the concerns of the membership, not their own interests. Directors should interact and listen to their community. A good leader is a sounding board for others, bringing information and perspectives to meetings.