A Clean Bill of Health for Your Board 

  • Published April 19, 2022
  • / By Penelepe C. Hunt

The financial, programmatic, and operational challenges of the past two years hit hard, and many organizations were unprepared. The unprecedented stresses brought to light any cracks in their structure, including in their boards. Few boards had weathered anything like the pandemic, and we have seen that organizations with strong boards were much more likely to survive, and even thrive. 

An important part of our own health is annual check-ups. You can use the same idea to ensure that your board becomes, and stays, healthy. Each year, assess how your board is doing in each of these key areas: 

Strong Leadership 

  • Is your board chair fully committed to the responsibilities that come with this important position?  
  • Does your chair face hard issues head on? 
  • Does your chair require proper commitment from board members?
  • Is there a board leadership succession plan in place? 

Synchronicity with Management 

  • Are the board and the CEO in agreement about key strategies and objectives? 
  • Does the performance planning and evaluation for the CEO align with institutional priorities and emphasize leadership? 

Productive Meetings 

  • Are your meetings active, with advance materials eliminating the need for lengthy reports during the meeting? 
  • Do your board members look forward to meetings as an opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways? 
  • Do you have a good balance of formal board meetings and board work happening in committees or work groups between meetings? 
  • Do meetings include respectful discussions that engage all members? 

Explicit Infrastructure 

  • Are your by-laws current? 
  • Do you have board member job descriptions and performance evaluations? 
  • Do you have, and enforce, term lengths and limits? 

 Inspired Board Members 

  • Is your organization in the top three philanthropic priorities of each board member? 
  • If you have board giving expectations, do members meet or exceed them early in the fiscal year? 
  • Do members know why they are on the board – whether to bring a particular expertise, to represent a constituency, or some other strategic purpose? 
  • Do members show pride in your organization and advocate for it whenever they can? 

Diversified Board Makeup 

  • Does your membership have a diversity of backgrounds, talents, networks, and demographics? 
  • Does your membership mirror the makeup of your organization’s constituencies? 
  • Is your recruitment approach designed to ensure diversity of membership? 

If your board is ailing on any of these fronts, address the problems swiftly. Unaddressed issues can fester and cause greater difficulties down the road. Moderate adjustments can produce significant results and are an important investment in your organization’s future. Here are some things to keep in mind as you consider how to move forward: 

Make sure everyone understands the diagnosis. 

Discussing and interpreting the results of the checkup is the first step in reaching consensus about what to address and how. It is common to find that board members have different understandings and expectations around the components of the checkup. Finding common ground, and agreeing on what needs to be addressed, is crucial before taking action. If you’re not all trying to solve the same problem, the attempted solutions won’t work. 

Enlist board leadership in figuring out what to do. 

Board leadership and staff leadership should work closely to develop an action plan. The board chair in particular will have to play a strong leadership role as the board works on itself and must own the plans from the very beginning. The best way to ensure this is for the chair to be part of developing the plans. 

Engage the board in its own healthy habits. 

Once the framework for addressing concerns is in place, every board member should play a role in working to improve. This can happen within committees or on ad hoc work groups. Willingness to dig in on this important work is a demonstration of a board member’s commitment. Those who are not interested or willing to participate may not be part of a healthy board. 

Create a brave space for candor. 

Accepting that there are problems and taken ownership of addressing them can be difficult. Long-time board members may feel they are being criticized for how the board has developed over time. Newer members may be hesitant to speak candidly to more senior members about their concerns and ideas. Setting and adhering to ground rules for open and respectful discussion, especially when facing challenging conversations, will help strengthen the culture of the board and will ensure that a variety of perspectives and opinions are heard and considered. 

Embrace accountability. 

The best plans are those that get implemented. As the board and staff move forward with a plan for improvement, there should be a clear understanding of who will do what, and when. Frequent check-ins on progress will help keep the project top of mind for all involved. Holding ourselves and each other accountable in supportive ways is an important part of implementing a plan, and is a core characteristic of a healthy board. 

Working together to address weak spots can be a great opportunity for board members and management to strengthen their relationship, and seeing better results on the next year’s checkup can be a source of pride for everyone involved.