Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Best Practices for Working with a Board

I love this article! My favorite part is Debra BenAvram's advice on staying focused. How many times have you sat in a board meeting and felt you were going over the same terrain again and again? Board Members give their time to the organization and nothing is worse than feeling like your time is being wasted. Don't read this one it over again, print it out, give it to your staff and board chair! Bunnie

Best Practices for Working with a Board

by Debra BenAvram, CEO, American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition

Even in the best of times, nonprofit boards can’t afford to lose momentum. With the current economic climate, it is more important than ever to ensure your board stays on track to meet strategic goals.

What I’ve found in my role as CEO of the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (A.S.P.E.N.) - is that working with a board is unique to any other relationship you’re likely to have. For one thing, you have a limited amount of time to get up to speed before it’s already time to onboard new members. And, it’s entirely likely – depending on the terms and bylaws of your organization – that you may have a new boss every year. With each new board president comes a new work style, different expectations and diverse agendas to which you’ll need to adapt.

So, what are the steps required to successfully manage a nonprofit board in today’s tough economic climate? Here are a few things I’ve found particularly helpful:

A Strong Mission and Direction

A.S.P.E.N. is an interdisciplinary organization whose members are involved in all aspects of clinical nutrition therapies, from nutrition support and clinical practice to research and education. The organization’s strategic mission is to be the recognized leader in the field of nutrition support therapy. When grooming future board members, we look to individuals who will further that mission. As the CEO, I work with the board to help identify and cultivate leaders within our organization who I believe can do that.

Orientation and Coaching

When we have a new member joining the A.S.P.E.N. board, I provide comprehensive overview materials and schedule a one-on-one orientation meeting. As a complement to the individual orientation, I also ask that incoming board members participate in one or two conference calls before they begin their new roles. This allows them to hit the ground running as soon as they become active members.

I’ve found it’s also helpful to provide some ongoing coaching on the more important aspects of their role. For instance: the power of dissent; or what constitutes a good decision versus a bad one. These are all gray areas that can be tricky to navigate. Over the years, I’ve been able to glean some best practices form presidents and other board members which can be helpful as new folks transition into their roles.

Understand the Board’s Culture

Like any group of people, boards each have a unique personality. For instance, some boards really like kitschy ice breakers. Others are far more formal. As a CEO or ED of a nonprofit, one of the easiest ways to lose the respect of incoming board members is to inaccurately assess a its culture. Understanding who you’re working with, communicating appropriately and setting the right tone can make all the difference.

Stay Focused

Nothing kills momentum and enthusiasm more than thinking every meeting is “ground hog’s day.” To avoid this, I try to keep my board focused on strategy rather than operations. It’s human nature for people to get bogged down in minutia. When that happens, I gently remind board members that staying focused on the big picture - are we on track to meet our strategic goals or not? - is where their time is best spent.

Be Prepared

When hosting a meeting or a call, every piece of information that will be referenced – even if it’s just in passing – should be provided to board members in advance. These are incredibly busy people. In many cases, they are volunteering their very valuable time. It’s imperative that it not be wasted with a litany of questions that could be mitigated with some advance work on the part of the CEO or ED.

Demonstrate Progress

A.S.P.E.N.’s board conducts three face-to-face meetings per year. At each meeting, I present a “report card” of metrics tracked across all areas of our organization. The data includes a narrative as well as quantitative information. This clearly demonstrates where we are hitting on all cylinders and where we still need to do some work.

At each meeting – and many times in between - we also refer back to our “strategic management” document. Rather than have a strategic plan that goes on a shelf and gathers dust, we view this as a fluid document that can and should be adjusted for the current environment. Viewing strategy in this way – as something we actually work with constantly – keeps the board excited and engaged.

These five steps all seem pretty logical, but they can easily get lost in crunch time. By staying focused on them, though, helps ensure that organizations continue to move forward with their respective missions - today and well into the future.

Debra BenAvram serves as the chief executive officer of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. She is a certified association executive with areas of expertise including strategy, organizational culture, and volunteer management. She enjoys the balance of working with internal staff, the Board and others to shape the organization. Working with these partners, she works to facilitate the articulation of and movement toward the organization’s vision of its future.


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