December 15, 2018
 
Effective Boards Get, and Stay, that Way by Asking Good Questions

Learning how to be a nonprofit board member is similar to parenting: most people learn on the job. For those already serving, or thinking about serving, on a nonprofit board, How to Make Your Board Dramatically More Effective, Starting Today offers practical insight and guidance.

Authored by nonprofit consultant and strategist Gayle L. Gifford, this volume, easily read in an hour, aims to improve board performance by helping members measure themselves against three yardsticks: How they will make the community better. How they perform as stewards. How well they work as a team.

As Gifford notes, “If you and your board colleagues don’t share a common understanding of the work you must do, it can be difficult to judge what kind of job your board is doing.”

She guides board members to a better understanding of themselves by posing 34 questions centered on the three yardsticks noted above.

Similar to the tactics employed by many consultants, the questions Gifford poses are straightforward and seek to unearth basic truths. Answering them may require different degrees of introspection and investigation. For example:
  • How well do we know our community’s needs?
  • Are we prepared to respond to a changing world?
  • What kind of stewards are we?
  • Do we have the best CEO for the job?
While it’s reasonable to expect board members to know their community’s needs, those needs may be changing rapidly as the larger world changes. Without reaching out to many people—in person, on the phone, engaging in research—and then discussing with fellow board members what it all means, it may be difficult to say one really understands those needs.

Beyond posing questions, Gifford provides practical advice that any board can act on. “If you want yours to be a great board, keep your ears to the ground year-round,” she writes, and suggests the following:
  • Periodically hold board meetings at a place that matters to your mission.
  • Invite a community expert to speak at your board meeting.
  • Consider convening your strategic planning committee year-round.
  • Know what’s happening in your state house.
  • Hold an annual board retreat to dig deeper into complex issues.
Perhaps appropriately, Gifford devotes the most space (15 of the 34 questions) to building a great board.

Boards that ask themselves hard questions—How good is our board? Do we recruit the directors we want and need?—and then make the effort to generate honest answers, followed by whatever actions are needed to make improvements, will be more effective (and their organizations more successful) than those that don’t. That’s the implied promise of this book.

How to Make Your Board Dramatically More Effective, Starting Today is available from Emerson & Church .

Reviewed by Peter Lowy
May 2018


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