Boards in Transition

Taking Stock of Accomplishments and Identifying Challenges

Several weeks ago I received a request to meet with the executive director and the staff person who works with their donors and potential donors of a mid-size multi-service organization. The agency was in a period of transition, and according to the by-laws, they would be electing a new board of directors in the early part of the 2010. Many of the board members would be continuing to sit on the soon to be elected board and a number would be completing their volunteer service to the organization.

They posed a series of questions focusing on building a sense of continuity into the board’s functioning and on not losing the momentum of the present board. How could the new members of the board be brought “up to speed” and quickly develop a sense of commitment to the organization? How to communicate a feeling of “ownership” for the future development of the organization? What dynamic needs to be initiated so the organization does not forfeit all that has been achieved during the last few years? How can the new board build on what had been created thus far?

In this kind of situation, it is best to develop a two part process. The first part focuses on the present board and involves the leadership in “taking stock” on what and how the leadership has contributed to the continuing development of the agency. There are several approaches that can be utilized to maximize the opportunity. One approach is to have each of the active committees engage in a discussion focusing on what has happened over the past two or more years since the board was elected and began functioning.

The committees have the opportunity to note the unique contributions they made to the organization. They can identify those agenda items that they were hoping to complete but for a variety of reasons were unable to do so. The committee members are now passing the challenge on to the new board to consider “completing” the work. The process of engaging in this kind of discussion will provide an opportunity for the individual members to have a sense of the worthwhile nature of their involvement.

Following the committees’ engaging in this kind of discussion they should be able to report to the board as a whole group. This way the entire board develops a broader perspective on what they have been able to achieve during their tenure. There are a number of venues for conducting this review process.

The committees can use their regularly scheduled meetings to discuss what they have done and how they have worked together over the years. If this does not work for the agency then it is possible is to take a several hours on one day and plan for a “mini-retreat” where they spend four or more hours together and plan for a series of small group discussions (break-out groups) as well as meetings of the entire group. Inviting people to spend a longer period of time together, when planned appropriately, can be very productive, as well as, providing people with an opportunity to have a good time together.

The ability to speak together in small groups, and then discuss their deliberations with the broader group of the entire board, allows the present board to reach a sense of closure. Instead of having discussions over a period of several weeks and then holding a discussion with the entire board, a facilitated process can be very fruitful for the individual members and the board as a whole. The members will have a clearer sense of how the board has contributed to the organization at the end of the day’s program. Sometimes this intensive approach is more effective and can have a stronger impact that a process that is planned and implemented over several weeks.

It is best if a document can be prepared summarizing the deliberations and offering suggestions or recommendations for the new board. This can be distributed at a meeting once the new board begins its work or it can be sent to the members in advance of a board meeting dealing with the transition. Another possibility is to conduct a second “mini-retreat” for the new board. This allows for the board members continuing to serve and the new members who are just joining the board to get to know each other and to engage in a thoughtful process that can help the two groups, veterans and newcomers, mix and get to know each other.

Starting the new board’s work with a “mini-retreat” is a way of saying “Welcome, we value your joining us and we want you to experience how we work together”. These events often set a nice tone that communicates a sense of the agency’s valuing of its new incoming volunteer leadership. In addition, the organization can communicate a clear sense of its expectations of the active and involved board members. The new members can be socialized into the culture of the agency and this provides them with a foundation for their active involvement. Following the retreat the committees can begin to meet, and the members have a basic understanding of the both the purpose of the agency and the focus of the work of the board of directors.

Organizations that invest in volunteer leadership development and provide continual opportunities for the education of its board members find they reap the benefits due to the committed and knowledgeable leadership that contributes to the sustained growth of the agency. The amount of time and energy required to conceptualize and implement these processes is well worth it and its impact is felt immediately as the governance and resource development functions are strengthened. The more we provide to our leadership, the more leadership is able to contribute to which they are involved and committed.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.