Board Culture

This month, Armstrong McGuire is reflecting on nonprofit board governance, and what it really means to be a single member of a collective Board of Directors.

Throughout my nonprofit career, I have always been fascinated by the collective identity of boards. Boards, in many ways, are living organisms that adapt and evolve over time, as organizations grow, as missions change, as executive directors come and go, and as new board members cycle on and off.

Yes, there are duties required of board members that do not change. There are bylaws (which may change) that guide decision making and assign board roles and responsibilities, and outline expectations and commitments.

Board Source, perhaps the best national resource on board governance, lists three legal duties of a nonprofit board: Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty, and Duty of Obedience.

But what is more malleable is the culture of a board, often not codified and frequently unspoken, passed from new board class to new board class over the years.

The danger for any nonprofit and its board is that the culture--sometimes through a slow creep or other times through a jarring leap--becomes malignant, spawning mistrust, miscommunication, and defensiveness amongst its members. The commitment to collective mission gives way to personal animosity.

Or, just as dangerous, that the culture becomes passive and disengaged. Momentum slows, decision making is deferred to the executive director, and service slowly ends at the boardroom door after the votes of yea or nay are given.

For a nonprofit to survive and thrive, boards must be eager and engaged. They must transition into their roles as community ambassadors when they step foot out of the boardroom. In many ways, some of the most important work of a board member begins when they go back into the community.

How can nonprofits better anticipate and address these cultural shifts? How can nonprofits take more active control of the culture of their boards?

It starts first with a thoughtful board orientation for new members, which can also serve as a collective reaffirmation for standing board members to the mission of the organization and the communities it serves.

Cycling on new members to a board is a great opportunity to level set with your Board of Directors. New members bring fresh perspectives and new energy. It also becomes an opportunity for standing board members to move into mentoring roles, especially if a Board is committed to identifying, recruiting, and training new board members from communities often excluded from traditional nonprofit governance.

For a negative board culture to change or a positive board culture to survive, it takes constant care and oversight.

How are you cultivating your board culture?

Todd Brantley is a Senior Advisor with Armstrong McGuire who specializes in board governance, rural community & economic development, faith communities, strategic planning, organizational assessment. Learn more about Todd and check out his other musings in his bio. Listen to what Todd has to say about board governance in this short video and check out our recent case study on board development featuring The Filling Station.

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