Conference Gives Advice on Strengthening Boards

More than 200 nonprofit executives and lay leaders from the UJA-Federation of New York’s network of agencies met November 15th for “Leadership Matters: Board Practices That Enhance Impact and Excellence,” a conference to discuss how board governance can be strengthened to increase organizational effectiveness.

At the conference, UJA-Federation announced a new Governance and Leadership Grant program aimed at aiding agencies seeking governance help. For beneficiary agencies whose representatives attended the Leadership Matters conference, the agency is eligible for up to $10,000 for projects that include board assessment, post-assessment follow-up, building customized financial dashboards and creating a governance committee.

Speakers throughout the day told stories of how their groups have tackled governance issues and made significant progress. Experts also introduced new approaches for engaging board members and changing the nature of discourse in the board room.

Simon Klarfeld, executive director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, said his organization needed to change its structure when a new building and expanding programs called for the organization to grow. After going through a strategic planning process, a grant from UJA-Federation helped his group undergo a board assessment working with an outside consultant. Klarfeld said changes were made coming out of that process, including reducing the size of an unwieldy board, instituting minimum-gift requirements for board members, writing a handbook and enhancing orientation.

Nan Morrison, a trustee of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, said her board was not in such great need of change, but an assessment project still led to substantial improvements, such as more successfully integrating new board members. She said outside consultants were helpful in governance projects because they bring objectivity.

Talking about recruiting board members, a number of speakers said it is important to know specifically what an organization is looking for. A number of external sources for board members were mentioned, including UJA-Federation’s Observership program. Through that program, young leaders between the ages of 22 and 45 serve as nonvoting members of boards for one year, and many later become full board members.

“Good intentions do not make a good performing board,” said Louise B. Greilsheimer, UJA-Federation’s senior vice president of agency and external relations. Greilsheimer, participated in the Observership program when she was in her 20s, said finding the right people for boards is pivotal.

Martin Englisher, executive vice president of the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood, said, “All your board members are ambassadors.” He said targeted recruiting had helped his agency find new members in the key group of 25- to 40-year-olds in recent years.

Fran Szczesny and Jeffrey Kaplan, two of the conference’s organizers and chairs of UJA-Federation’s Task Force on Agency Capacity and Excellence, said it was the first program of its kind for the organization, and Szczesny praised the “palpable” energy in the room.