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Board Time: Three Keys to Strategic Engagement

Posted by Jim Canales on Feb 28, 2018 2:01:00 PM

time-meeting.pngThis blog post is the first in a series written by foundation leaders in response to a new research report published by BoardSource titled  Foundation Board Leadership: A Closer Look at Foundation Board Responses to Leading with Intent 2017.This report is an effort to better understand the particular dynamics of foundation boards and involved taking a close look at the subset of responses from the 141 foundation leaders who completed the Leading with Intent 2017 survey. While the sample of foundation responses is relatively small and a convenience versus representative or randomized sample, we believe the report nonetheless provides important insights into the dynamics at play within some foundation boards.

Engaging boards authentically and productively in the development and oversight of philanthropic strategy remains one of the more challenging dimensions of leading a foundation. Board members and chief executives agree this is a desirable goal, but as BoardSource’s Leading with Intent 2017 demonstrates, there remains a gap between aspiration and reality.

The subset of foundation responses to that national survey, which is analyzed in Foundation Board Leadership: A Closer Look at Foundation Board Responses to Leading with Intent 2017, reveals some important findings with implications for how we can more effectively engage our boards in the work of our foundations.

I was struck by this comment in the report: “Board meeting time should be considered a precious and limited resource that must be leveraged strategically.” Having led two foundations over the past 14 years, I can attest to the importance of being intentional and strategic about how to organize a board’s time. Here are three ideas to address this critical need:

Organize board meeting time for optimal engagement

Foundation board meetings—indeed any board meetings—can easily be consumed by routine reports and business matters that divert the board’s attention from larger strategy considerations. BoardSource notes: “Foundation executives currently report that 40 percent of all meeting time is spent on routine reporting, which severely curtails the board’s ability to spend time discussing and deliberating on more strategic and generative issues of importance to the foundation’s work.” If we don’t ensure that we are making the highest and best use of the limited time we receive from our boards, we will not succeed in engaging them more fully in strategy matters.

Each board meeting should provide substantive time for opportunities to engage in what Harvard education professor and governance expert Richard Chait calls “generative” work, where board and staff together are wrestling with strategic imperatives. In my experience, creating this kind of space for our boards is difficult. This can be scary for board members and for professional staff, as the latter often have greater content knowledge, and we all worry about discussions going awry. However, with clarity that you are not inviting the board to do the staff’s work, but rather seeking to benefit from the board’s collective insights and wisdom early and consistently to inform strategies being shaped, I would contend the outcome will be richer and board time more fruitfully used.

Provide accessible board materials and frame discussions at the right level

In philanthropy, we pride ourselves on rigorous analysis and high-quality written materials. Many of the board books I have read and helped to produce over the years are filled with lengthy white papers, docket memos, strategy updates, and grant recommendations. Sometimes the volume of these materials can be overwhelming, not just to those of us who produce them, but to those obligated to read them. Similarly, board sessions are often heavy on presentation and light on discussion. While presentations can be informative to board members, they may not encourage the kind of desired engagement described above.

Devoting careful attention to how materials are prepared and discussions framed in ways that enable board members to add value is a must. In another finding, BoardSource notes: “Both chief executives and board chairs report significantly lower levels of agreement on the question of whether board meetings focus on strategy and policy, with only 26 percent of executives and 33 percent of board chairs reporting that they do ‘to a great extent.’”

There is much we can do with our materials and discussions that equip the board to enter a meeting with both the right information and a solid understanding of what we need from them. I am an advocate for framing questions in advance materials that clarify what we are seeking from the board in a discussion. Of course, deft facilitation during board meetings is essential to ensuring that all voices are heard, that points of disagreement are explored, and that clarity regarding outcomes and next steps is articulated.

Broaden the board’s understanding of the foundation’s context and work

A common critique about boards is that they “drop in” intermittently without benefit of living the foundation’s work every day. That, of course, will not change, but one way to address this legitimate concern is to devote some of the board’s time to deepening members’ understanding of the context for the foundation’s work.

In this respect, whether through retreats, site visits, or guest speaker invitations, providing board members with direct access to the foundation’s partners or beneficiaries can be a powerful way to both educate them about context and energize them about the work.

There’s another benefit too: The context for our work is always shifting and evolving, and we would do well to balance the importance of clear strategy with the capacity to remain adaptable in the face of change. Indeed, BoardSource observes: “Effective strategy may be much more about the board’s ability to think strategically in a way that is adaptable in the face of constant change.”

Building in opportunities to benefit from outside perspectives can help the foundation to remain connected to the communities they serve and help the board to be attuned to the perspectives of partners in the field.

Foundation trustees are stewards of significant resources. They have an obligation to ensure those resources are being deployed in smart ways that advance the foundation’s mission and purpose. The suggestions above are offered in service to that goal, and what binds them together is this: Effective foundation boards have ownership for the foundation’s strategy; they understand it, they support its effective execution, and they help to improve it.

Such boards are also characterized by a productive partnership with their executives, grounded in mutual respect and trust. Indeed, as BoardSource notes: “Trust with chief executives that enables them to confidently engage the board in deeper, more open‐ended conversations about the foundation’s work…are essential to high‐level thinking and strategy.”

We should strive for nothing less.


Topics: Board Best Practices, Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit, Research, Generative Governance, Shared Leadership, Foundations, Family Foundations


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