Times are challenging for both families and nonprofits. The new IRS Form 990 calls for increased transparency and accountability from nonprofits, requesting additional information on board composition, governance practices, programs and accomplishments, compensation, and other items. And like the featured stories on ABC's popular show, there are nonprofits that need more than just a modest renovation to satisfy these new IRS requirements. They need a demolition, a rebuild, and a new foundation so that they can weather any storm. And often that foundation building needs to start with the board.
Is your organization a makeover candidate? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do we have the right governance policies and practices in place?
- Is our entire board actively engaged?
- Do they support our organization with their "heads, hearts, and hands"?
- Are we one of their philanthropic priorities?
- Are they focused on mission-based strategies or just day-to-day management?
- Can they tell the organization's story with passion to their friends and colleagues?
- Are they more of a help—or more of a hindrance?
If you see cracks in your foundation when answering these questions, it is time to consider your options.
But first, put down the sledgehammer and call off the bulldozer. You'll need different tools for this kind of remodeling job: a thoughtful plan, a good dose of patience, a strong sense of conviction, and some champions of change.
Here are some tips as you start designing a board makeover:
- Take Time to Do It Right. You can't fast track something like this. Take the time to research different board models, to communicate frequently with your board and staff during the process, and to assess carefully what the organization's current and future needs are.
- Listen, Learn, and Show Respect. Change is hard under any circumstances. And structural board changes happen infrequently at best. Different governance models may be more effective at various stages of an organization's evolution. Listen carefully about what has worked and what hasn't, knowing that you probably can't make everyone happy.
- Transparency Works. Do not approach this process as a hostile takeover. Be open and honest. A nonprofit has a moral and ethical obligation to serve the community by fulfilling its nonprofit mission—even if accomplishing that goal means taking a realistic look at what needs to change. It is tempting to hear just what you want to versus listening to what you know is true.
- Think Strategically. Today's board changes will shape tomorrow's organization. Identify the critical board member skills and resources necessary to support your mission and vision—both for today and for tomorrow.
- Lead with Passion. Both management and board leadership need to be articulate advocates about why change is needed. Conversations about board giving, term limits, governance policies, committee structure, and succession planning are not always easy. But it helps if everyone is on the same page with a passionate commitment to the organization's long-term health.
Ready to start? Not so fast. You might be tempted to make this a DIY (do it yourself) project. But here is where an outside contractor/consultant can make a real difference. Remember—one house plan does not fit every lot in the neighborhood. The right person will bring a broad array of experiences and knowledge about different board models—what works, what doesn't, and what might be a good fit for your organization, your community, and your board. An outside professional facilitator will also have an objective perspective, enabling him or her to navigate potentially difficult conversations. This is one time where the Home Depot approach may not be the best way to cut corners.
Just like every building project, making over your board will take longer than you think. So be prepared. The secret to a successful transition is planning for different kinds of inputs, dialogues, and engagement. For example, a small task force made up of board emeriti and/or donors can take ownership of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of different governance models. Another task force can focus on communications and discussion groups. Ultimately, you need to make sure that your current board members feel that they are "team building" toward a more stable future for your organization. It may take months—it may even take a year. Just be sure to take the time and do it right.
The Nonprofit Reality
Now is the time to look for cracks in the institutional foundation and leaks in the organizational pipeline. The reality is that you might be a candidate for a board makeover. Just remember to take before and after pictures—you'll be amazed at the difference!
Case Study: Citi Performing Arts Center
Can an Extreme Board Makeover be successful? Here's a case study: you be the judge.
Almost 40 people willingly opted to go off the board, many staying involved as volunteers and/or donors.