Emerging Practices in Board Governance

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November is board retreat/advance month for many of my clients, and every fall also finds me teaching the Nonprofit Boards course to 40 MBA, MPP and JD students at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. Seeing the nonprofit sector through the eyes of a millennial generation that is focused – more than ever – on social impact, is an important perspective. The combination of my client work and teaching in November focused me on some emerging and “disruptive” practices that have allowed for more solid governance at a number of my client institutions.

Change often requires mass: Changing the culture of a board, from being tired and less strategic to becoming a far more engaged and forward-thinking entity with rigorous discourse and inspired ideas, is difficult to do quickly. In the complexity of the current environment, a new CEO desired to do this rapidly. After discussions with the board governance committee, the institution undertook a rigorous nominations and “audition” process that resulted in a fifth of the board being new, joining together as a class – all at one time. Most institutions would consider the challenges of on-boarding that many new board members as daunting, and indeed it was a serious consideration; however, the immediate influx of new ideas and energy, and the shift in the discussions to a more intellectually rich, forward-looking and impact orientation was deemed worth the short-term disruption.

Rigorous discourse in the boardroom can be subtly discouraged: For years, I have observed the value our institutions place on unanimous voting records. While perhaps encouraging debate over issues in the boardroom, board minutes recorded voting details: total tallies of yea and nay, acknowledgement of “unanimous” votes and listing of board member names when alignment was not unanimous. In an environment that values transparency, and in light of a new generation now populating our boardrooms, I am seeing the wisdom of changing this practice to encourage more honest and responsible debate. A board must speak with one voice when bringing important decisions forward to the public; however, strong and solid governance in the complex environment that is today needs to encourage rigorous debate.

Learning from consultants and peers: Especially when in campaign mode, deliberateness about ongoing board education and training is something many clients require. Together, most often with the board chair/governance chair and campaign steering committees, we map out a yearlong series of discussions at board meetings and retreats designed to build confidence and overall philanthropic capacity and culture. This fall, we designed a series of trainings that involve peer-to-peer conversations that are proving to be quite effective. These have involved major philanthropists from within and without the institution itself (“What has motivated your largest philanthropic commitments/institutional readiness indicators?”), another board chair discussing how his institution has readied for a campaign and the board’s role in these preparations, and a board chair and CEO team discussing essential strategies for campaign success. All presentations have been under an hour – with some as short as 15 minutes – from institutions that are particularly meaningful to the client, and involve active Q & A. Comments back have indicated appreciation for the investment in training, and for millennials and generations new to board service these sessions have proved particularly important in building strong leadership for our institutions.