Creating a positive board culture in challenging times

In Short

At a time of escalating division, fear, anger and loss, having strong board leadership and deep board relationships is vital.  

When Jewish organizations are well run — when the lay and professional leaders are aligned and supporting each other — our communities are more likely to thrive. As board president of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) Bay Area, I have experienced how critical it is for boards to lead organizations with accountability, transparency and a commitment to the mission. A positive board culture goes a long way toward carrying out work in a manner that reflects these key principles. 

Achieving that culture, however, does not happen overnight; it takes intentional, ongoing effort. In Leading Edge’s recent report on Jewish nonprofit boards, one of the key findings is that “[b]oard culture and trust drive board effectiveness. Jewish nonprofit boards could benefit from focusing more on building their cultures.” 

Our governance committee recognized board culture as an area for growth based on data gathered from our board members. Our board members shared that, especially post-COVID, they want to be more connected to each other inside and outside the boardroom; they want to have more active members from all demographics; they want to engage in substantive issues where they can add value; and they want create an atmosphere where all voices are heard. 

Here are some of the ways we have since moved the board in this direction:

Mindset shift around board operations and governance 

As the field of nonprofit boards evolves and professionalizes, the importance of board operations and governance is clear and imperative to support the health of our organizations. Instead of focusing on how to fit board members into our existing operating system, we are shifting to think about how to attract the right people and how to engage our board effectively. 

For instance, many of our board members have unpredictable and often full schedules. Family commitments and careers often complicate the time and energy our board members can dedicate to the board, so we asked ourselves how we could engage their expertise with flexibility while still meeting our board goals.

Today, many of our board members have a “portfolio” that includes both ongoing and discrete projects that they can commit to and manage largely on their own schedule; others sit on committees as part of their portfolio. For example, we have a board member who has professional experience in people management as well as diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. This board member has taken on projects such as an advisory role in our DEIB work; drafting our first-ever “Emergency CEO Succession Plan”; co-chairing an HR task force; and advising on the CEO evaluation.

Meetings (and other activities) are in person, with relationship-building a core priority

Like many organizations, we relied on Zoom during the pandemic. Today we have returned almost entirely to in-person meetings, a key finding from data collected on building culture.

Our meetings center on our values of connection, business, education and generative discussions. We shifted the way we structure our meetings in response to members’ requests to use their expertise more, increase their value and maximize time for generative conversation. Our agenda includes “questions to ponder” under each agenda topic, to encourage reflection. We conduct new business at the beginning of meetings not at the end when everyone is itching to leave. We have a chunk of time for learning together, followed by a generative period that taps into the board’s expertise and helps our staff. We also explicitly give everyone a chance, and even a prompt, to speak.

We cover a lot of ground and hear a lot of different perspectives before we make key decisions. Now reports from individuals and committees are adapted to be shared in advance in the board package using tools such as Loom videos, which help make material more accessible and get us to conversation faster. We will also be creating a Loom library for this year’s incoming board members in advance of the board orientation so they can prepare in advance and come with questions for discussion. While this level of preparation requires a commitment, the payoff of prepared board members is tremendous.

Board retreats lay a strong foundation

Coming out of the pandemic, people not only needed to connect with each other but needed to coalesce around a shared vision for how we would operate together. 

Over the course of two retreats, our entire board connected and engaged in sessions to discuss what was working, what needed to be changed and what did we want to let go of. One outcome was that we agreed to come together for a board retreat shabbaton something outside the confines of the board room and in an environment that offered an extended “learning lab.” For our time at Camp Newman, we committed to having different members of the board facilitate aspects of the agenda by tapping into different skill sets and expertise. We also took seriously the importance of spending time together over a wine tasting, Trivia game, meals and Shabbat to connect with each other and the mission of our work.

We are seeing results from these actions that reflect culture change. Our work is now informed by a larger diversity of opinions. We spend time learning together, as a group, and asking questions versus always offering opinions or advice. 

On the education front, we have an educational piece built into each agenda (and this is not typical board education, which is also important), and we hope to soon launch a relevant reading group.

In our last board retreat, we “Q-Stormed” a couple of questions about which the staff wanted input. (Q-Storming is a design and innovation technique that focuses on generating questions rather than ideas in the early phases of a project.) When we discuss a topic a topic at a board meeting and need to hear opinions, we now go around the board table to each board member so we can hear all voices, rather than the same few who speak. 

We are also trying to level our knowledge and experience on important board responsibilities such as fundraising. Instead of starting with solicitation training knowing that many are not comfortable with asking for financial support, we are starting with discussing our own personal relationship to money. Next we plan to study the spiritual architecture of generosity and communal support. We will study how the act of soliciting support is an acknowledgement of the collective strength and shared responsibility within a community. 

We take care of business that positions the organization for long-term success and make sure to set goals, evaluate ourselves and the CEO.

The Leading Edge report states: “As it is with professional teams, so it is with boards: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ Board culture can make or break board performance.” We certainly believe there is always room for growth, and that we ourselves need to be continual learners for the benefit of our organizations’ futures.

During these times of crisis, creating or enhancing board culture is critical. Having good board culture helps bond us in ways that not only improve our board work and organizations, but strengthen our relationships in ways that are rewarding and soul-comforting.

May our boards go from strength to strength.

Jan Reicher is board president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area.