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Is Your Nonprofit Board Focused on the Right Things?

Posted by BoardSource on Oct 14, 2015 9:43:05 AM

excepboards-photogBy Tom Adams, director, Succession and Sustainability Planning, Raffa PC

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

Board leaders have many choices on how to focus the time and talent of the board and its work, with certain duties often well engrained in the board’s culture and habits. Most boards pay attention to finances, periodically ask about the strategic plan and goals, and, in some cases, complete an annual performance review of the CEO. And if fundraising is a major role, this often gets a lot of attention.

Habits — behaviors we do routinely — cut both ways. Often they are helpful and contribute to our good. Other times, they distract us from what is important or misdirect time and resources. For board leaders, reinforcing habits that overlook critical issues or responsibilities or major changes in what is required of the board is dangerous. Organizations that fail to adapt to needed changes in strategy or business model, or fail to prepare for leadership change due to an aging senior team, run the risk of unexpectedly ending up managing a crisis or underperforming for months or years.

The 2008-2009 recession painfully increased awareness about financial sustainability. Since then, leading organizations are combining attention to a broader look at organizational sustainability and vitality with attention to leadership continuity and succession planning. High-performing organizations want to hold that ground and achieve even more mission results. Organizations on the path to increased results want to make sure their trip is not interrupted by unexpected changes in leadership, resources, or the environment.

The great news for boards is that with some preparation and a relatively short discussion — an hour or so in a board meeting — leaders can quickly look at their organizational big picture and decide where to focus and go deeper based on the current and future needs of their organizations. This discussion asks the board to do a mini-assessment in two dimensions:

  • Organizational sustainability around four areas of focus: leadership, strategy and business model, resources, and culture
  • Leadership continuity and succession, readiness for planned and unplanned transitions of key executive and board leaders

Here are examples of this process at work:

Organization A is a leader in its field. Over a period of ten years, it has transformed from a struggling single-focused advocacy organization to a go-to provider of a comprehensive set of services. Successfully completing a capital campaign, the CEO is retiring. A sustainability and succession review quickly points to attention to the organization’s culture and decision making as the key to retaining talent and transitioning to the next executive.

Organization B has been talking for several years about the impact of the Affordable Care Act on their services. By looking at sustainability and succession together, this organization is able to develop a concrete action plan that focuses the board and executive team on the choices and culture changes needed to adapt and thrive.

Organization C has been struggling for the past five years. The reserves are near depleted and most of the board members have resigned or are disengaged. Staff size has shrunk by 50 percent. Before deciding to give up and close down, two board leaders and the CEO decide to step back and look more deeply at sustainability. Together these three leaders create a turnaround plan that includes the departure of the CEO departing, the hiring of an interim CEO with turnaround expertise, and the organization letting go of two services and focusing on its two better known and consistently funded services.

Board leaders have choices about focus. Without a periodic review of why the board is focused on what it is, the board can lose its way or miss a big issue that can derail or possibly destroy the organization. A relatively short conversation about organizational sustainability and leadership continuity can prevent the derail and better focus the resources of the board and organization. The initial conversation provides the focus for the board and executive team to go deeper on the work that matters.

BoardSource will feature a three-hour Professional Development Institute (PDI) workshop at BLF that offers hands-on work with a sustainability and succession mini-assessment tool and prepares leaders to have these important conversations with their boards. I encourage you to join us.

Please note: Conference registrants must preregister for this workshop.




Topics: BoardSource Leadership Forum

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