Who Exactly is Your Board?

| by Priscilla Bratcher

I know it’s a dangerous practice, but I’ve been thinking.  Our topic this month has been working with boards and most of us who have been in nonprofit work for a while have a lot to say.  For many years, so did I.  But I recently moved from direct fund development work to consulting and it’s shifted my perspective.

I ran into Joanna Ruth Marsland, a friend of mine and a former UNC development colleague, at the mall a couple of weeks ago.  After catching up about our personal lives for a few minutes, we started to discuss work.  We had shared a board member in common while I was at Carolina Performing Arts (CPA).  Joanna Ruth raises funds for UNC Press.  She made a comment about her board that stuck.  “We’re a quiet bookish crowd,” she said, and that started a chain of thought for me.  Our CPA board was anything but; board meetings were lively, passionate and filled with laughter.

Here’s the question:  Do boards have personalities?  In my experience, definitely yes.  I’ve worked for several organizations and each board has had its own collective, often unexpected, style.  When I worked for public television, the home of Big Bird and Hyacinth Bucket, the board (largely politically appointed) was serious and highly concerned with protocol.  I left there to work for a national health education organization that dealt with serious and deadly diseases.  That board was highly knowledgeable and intense, but had a party spirit and loved jokes and one-liners.  My international arts organization’s board was stiff and formal, despite the fact that it focused on the works of Shakespeare, one of the funniest, raciest and silliest writers in the English language.  My takeaway lesson is that you just can’t predict.

Boards are collections of unique individuals brought together around a common passion for an organization and its mission.  When the individuals become a collective, they definitely take on a new identity.  By identifying the corporate personality of the board, we can create a more productive relationship with our volunteer leaders.  As you begin to think about your board as a person, it might be helpful to consider the following questions:

  • What’s your board’s personality style:  businesslike or loose, creative or formal, serious or silly?  Find ways to appeal to their collective style while keeping them focused on their shared purpose.
  • What is their meeting style?  No one wants to be lectured to by staff for hours on end.  Build in discussion time.
  • How much structure do they prefer at meetings?  Are they an “I talk then you talk” communicator or do they interrupt each other, building on each other’s ideas?  Create agendas to support their preferred structure and flow.
  • How do they like to receive information?  Email has intensified communications. Where’s the line between not enough and too much?  Are they hitting “delete” before reading because their inboxes are overflowing?  Do they feel like they are out of the loop?
  • What kind of information do they want from us?  Striking the right balance between too much minutiae and pointless generalities is crucial.
  • What kind of social opportunities do we need to build into our board meetings to foster bonding and a sense of common purpose and, dare I say, fun?

Boards are organizations but they also act as unique organisms.  Let’s remember that as we madly try to get copies of the agenda and handouts ready for the next meeting.

I’m sure you have ideas about your current or past boards and their personalities.  Let’s start the conversation!


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