Fostering High-Impact Boards for Nonprofits: Critical Leadership Contributions by Interim Executives
By Cynthia Flash, Flash Media Services
For Third Sector Company
As professional interim executives for nonprofit organizations, we are asking two key questions:
– Are the governing boards of community impact organizations really doing enough to advance the people and communities that they serve?
-What roles can and should an interim executive director take on to help all types of nonprofits do more to get to a next level of their boards adding significantly increased impact on the people and communities their organizations serve?
Over the past few years, BoardSource has released important information aimed at rethinking traditional board governance models for community impact organizations in an effort to improve overall service. In her groundbreaking article, “The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership,” then BoardSource CEO Anne Wallestad emphasized that successful community impact organizations operate in an ecosystem and not on their own in contributing to sustainable community change. A follow-up paper, “Reimagining Boards for High Impact,” advances her suggestions by responding to board research conducted by BoardSource and other organizations with specific suggestions for action.
Third Sector Company recently convened a Research to Practice Forum for Interim Executives to discuss the findings of these two reports and create a set of recommendations for how interim executive directors could put them into practice to help move nonprofit organizations and their boards forward.
According to BoardSource’s 2021 study, Leading with Intent, the 820 respondents said they see positive momentum in terms of board performance, with more than 70% of executives and 80% of board chairs indicating that their board’s performance has improved in the past three years. They acknowledge, however, that they have a long way to go. This is a great opportunity for interim directors to continue the forward trajectory.
The study focused on four main findings:
1. Boards are disconnected from the communities and people they serve.
2. Boards that prioritize fundraising above all else do so at the expense of organizational strategy, relevance, and impact.
3. Boards do not spend enough time on:
- Building and sustaining a diverse board with a commitment to equity.
- Understanding how the organization operates – within a system.
- Building community relationships that help support an organization’s work.
4. The board’s overall culture is best expressed by a board chair’s strong leadership and clear expectations of board service. This includes the chair’s interaction with the (interim) executive director.
Based on these findings, experienced transitional leaders who participated in Research Forum pointed out that when starting a new engagement, an interim executive should:
- Talk with nonprofit organizations at the time of engagement about the current challenges of the board that should be addressed during the interim period.
- Work with an independent evaluator to conduct a board assessment through a written survey and interviews to bring forth data points about the board’s culture and activities.
- Present the two studies as a board “In-Service” session and facilitate discussion about reactions and opportunities to the information presented.
- Spend some time looking at the board member job descriptions looking through a “high-impact” lens to offer some immediate contributions to evolving the board.
- Construct a work plan specifically for the board for implementation during the interim period. Make it a process that could be continued with the new executive subject to refinements during the transition so the new executive can continue through further interactions and idea-sharing challenges the board is facing and setting expectations.
Once in the role, interims have a unique contribution as an “observer” at board meetings to offer suggestions to further enhance and refine board proceedings.
Board evolution is a perfect way to further engage with the board chair as a partner in bringing alignment to the organization during an interim period. If the interim engagement is taking place in a particularly tumultuous period of transition, focusing on the “bigger picture” of community impact can be a tremendous contribution to elevating people and processes fixated on the drama that can be associated with executive changes in nonprofit organizations.
It’s important to overlay the recent research on top of Wallestad’s advice for purpose-driven board leadership. Her key recommendations include:
1. Putting an organization’s cause before its infrastructure. The organization has a place in the community but is not THE community. Find that place by asking the community and determine what actions the organization should take to achieve the desired social outcome.
2. Respecting the ecosystem the organization is part of. Rather than asking how an action would impact the organization, ask how it will help the community.
3. Having an equity mindset. Not all people have the same lived experience or access. Instead of asking how a decision will advance the organization’s mission, ask how it will create more equitable outcomes for those the organization serves. Ask if there are ways a decision would reinforce systemic inequities and what can be done to avoid this.
4. Recognizing that voice and power must be given to those the organization serves as well as to the organization’s leadership. Make sure the board includes and listens to those impacted by its work.
It’s important to understand how purpose-driven leadership influences an interim executive’s job. The interim executives who participated in this forum said:
- Becoming a purpose-driven board is a long-term shift. The interim executive should plant the seeds, look at what is needed to make this shift, determine who the stakeholders are, and start to define and understand the ecosystem.
- Understand where the board and board chair stand on equity issues to help move them toward where they want to go in this area.
- Determine how moving from a traditional board to a purpose-driven board relates to the organization’s strategic plan. Sometimes there is oscillation between a traditional and purpose-driven approach.
- Every effort toward a purpose-driven board will be different.
- As a board moves toward becoming a purpose-driven board, continually integrate the topic into numerous interactive discussions by asking, “What would this mean for the people we serve?”
Moving toward a purpose-driven board approach may be a significant shift, a transition that requires long-term processes that last beyond the timeframe of an interim executive. Frame the work of the interim executive as a way to support the board to understand itself and its place on the continuum between traditional and a purpose-driven approach so the board can articulate what it wants from the full-time executive director it eventually will hire.
Once boards are led toward becoming purpose-driven organizations, becoming a high-impact board is the logical next step. The six-step approach includes specific and intentional acts as suggested by leadership experts Marty Kooistra and Jane Wei-Skillern, PhD:
1. Allocate board time to mission-critical activities since board members tend to be busy people with generally limited time to devote to their nonprofit work.
2. Build community voices into the board by recruiting a diverse set of board members who truly represent the communities served. Work to create greater community engagement and involvement and listen to these voices in a meaningful way.
3. Ground board decision-making in community wisdom to make sure decisions are connected to the community.
4. Deepen board-staff connections. Make sure the board listens to and learns from staff, including inviting staff to attend meetings.
5. Bring network aspirations to the ecosystem by asking what is best for the community, rather than the organization. Incorporate the conversation of purpose-driven boards into all conversations. Meet and work with leaders of other community organizations.
6. Reframe accountability and success to understand what success looks like in a community network. Define how your organization measures its impact within the ecosystem that its purpose is working toward.
Here are just a few practical ways for interim executives to apply the suggestions listed above:
- Allocate board time to mission-critical activities: Include the organization’s mission statement on each agenda and include a “mission moment” at the beginning of each meeting to remind board members what the organization’s mission is. Have a board member or guest share an experience that demonstrates the organization’s purpose. This grounds board members on why they are spending their precious volunteer time with this organization and centers the work on community impact.
- Build community voices into the board. This could include testimonials on how the organization has impacted the community. Observe which voices are missing from the board and invite a stakeholder/community member to speak at the meeting.
- Ground board decision-making in community wisdom. Create a set of questions to ask when making important decisions. Leave this behind for the permanent executive director to continue to use.
As community impact organizations strive to better serve their communities, introducing small but substantial modifications to board routines can foster a more high-impact perspective for everyone involved in the governance processes of a purpose-driven community organization.
This work is thought-provoking and its challenging; but a qualified interim executive director can help any organization begin a process of evolving its impact to create a legacy for many years after the interim engagement has concluded. If your nonprofit is preparing for an executive transition or you are interested in interim leadership, contact us today!
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