Boards matter and most often they are the impactful hidden figures of organizations. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with leaders who genuinely care about creating impact and who selflessly dedicate their time, expertise, and resources to leading mission-focused nonprofits.
Most board members serve because they believe in the mission and because they want to make a difference in their community. The typical board goes about its business silently, behind the scenes. They deserve to be celebrated.
Boards have the potential to create meaningful change and position themselves as thoughtful and intentional leaders in the areas they serve. In order to enhance their impact, boards need to continually improve upon their leadership structures, practices, and systems.
And that’s where Sage Consulting Network comes in.
We celebrate the unique aspects of each board we work with while also honing in on those areas where they can make adjustments in order to produce next-level results.
In the past twenty years as a consultant, I’ve helped hundreds of boards to improve their performance and to transform their structures and practices to ensure board governance operations that are designed for success. In 2015, I formed Sage Consulting Network and through these consulting collaborations, my focus is to contribute towards advancing innovative and disciplined leadership practices.
Throughout these projects I’ve identified five key leadership practices that lead the way to transformational governance:
1. Expectations and accountability go a long way.
Board members are at their best when they fully embrace their leadership role, when they are clear about their responsibilities and expectations, and when they are held accountable for following through with them.
2. The board’s best work doesn’t happen only in the boardroom.
Board meetings provide a structured environment for leaders to work collaboratively, but these meetings don’t encapsulate enough time for their best work to be undertaken. When boards clearly define their structure and understand their opportunities for engagement both within and outside the boardroom, members increase their impact.
3. Boards who spend time on self-assessments improve their overall performance.
Often boards don’t know what they need to know about their own performance. The typical Board follows historical patterns of board work year after year, often without understanding if these practices align with recommended governance practices.
Self-assessments provide a much-needed opportunity for boards to ask questions about board meeting and committee structures, roles and responsibilities, partnership with its senior executive and overall impact. Most importantly, this process identifies essential areas that they can improve, leading to a board development plan and ultimately a renewed, relevant and effective governance model.
4. Effective Board Chairs are essential to strong board performance.
The board chair’s leadership imperative is to lead the way forward. If there is any one person on the board who should be thinking ahead, strategically, systematically and about outcomes and impact; it’s the board chair. The board chair through her engagement with the senior executive, board members and as an ambassador in the community has the opportunity to amplify the organization’s mission and strategic direction in ways that are unique and powerful.
5. High performing boards have deliberate plans to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion.
It’s important that boards own their own visions for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for their board and for their organization. Boards should dedicate time for discussing what diversity, equity, and inclusion means for their board, organization, and those they serve.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer, instead, each board has to achieve their shared understanding of DEI. By embracing DEI, I’ve seen boards make incredible strides towards strengthening their performance and increasing their impact.
I want to dive deeper into some of the specific achievements Sage Consulting has been a part of and celebrate just a few of the teams we’ve been lucky to work with.
Clearly Defined Expectations & Accountability Make Stronger Boards
Being on a board is taking on a leadership role. As with most leadership roles, having clearly defined and communicated expectations and accountability processes will yield the best results.
In my work with boards of all sizes, backgrounds, industries, and communities, I’ve seen the impact having an innovative approach to leadership can have. By creating unique strategies for each board based on their specific needs as well as proven systems, we have been able to give the teams more impact and autonomy.
The Alfred Street Baptist Church (ASBC) transitioned from a traditional leadership Trustee Board to a Church Council governance structure. Their church council is a great example of innovation by implementing changes in their Bylaws, church member engagement, committee structures, reporting, and accountability. While most faith-based organizations follow a traditional leadership hierarchy, the ASBC wanted to include more of their church community in leadership roles.
By shifting candidacy of governing leaders to those who are elected from within the church membership, the ASBC is taking on a wildly different approach from the norm. This board (council) represents a community – the community of their church – and their new approach to council membership is a great way to get their community’s voices into the strategic direction, fiduciary oversight, and ensuring resources for the church. The church community now votes on church members who bring varying expertise to their roles on the church council.
I’ve also learned that whether you’re creating a new board or managing one that already exists, hurdles appear when going through any transition period. Even when you plan ahead, there are many intricate challenges that can arise.
It’s critical that your boards engage in succession planning early to accurately organize and delegate expectations and accountability during and after an emergency- unplanned or planned transition.
In both cases, we were faced with long-term executives who were very thoughtful in notifying their boards well in advance of their planned departure. This advance notice is critically important because it provides time for the board and leadership to focus on ensuring organizational readiness for this planned departure.
Boards have to acknowledge early on that their task isn’t to identify a replacement that is similar to the current CEO, rather to identify the CEO for the organization’s future.
Each succession is unique and complex, the common variables of most every succession plan requires that the boards and executives focus on ensuring readiness by reviewing and improving organizational systems, strengthening their board’s governance structures, operations and accountability, and identifying the unique characteristics and qualifications that are needed in the future CEO.
The combination of the exiting CEO’s forethought and working with our team at Sage Consulting ahead of time is a great way to be prepared and sustainable in times of crisis or planned transition.
A Board’s Best Work Happens Outside the Boardroom
Board meetings are important spaces for the members to communicate and connect with their organization’s leaders and each other. These meetings provide dedicated time to determine the details of the board’s priorities and how to best achieve their goals. However, for most nonprofit boards there are far too many initiatives that require the board focus, and the board meeting is not the optimal setting for accomplishing this deeper level of work.
As a result, meaningful work and engagement happens outside of the board meeting through committees, workgroups, and in the role of ambassadors by engaging with stakeholders, funders, and by supporting the organization’s work.
Members of the board must also work independently to ensure they are prepared to lead in such ways as: understanding the current strategic priorities, reviewing operational and program data and information, staying knowledgeable about practices within the organization’s specific sector, and understanding board member responsibilities and expectations.
The work we conducted with Psi Chi Psychology International Honor Society during their CEO Succession Planning is a great example of how boards can approach larger work in small pieces. It’s not unusual for boards to shy away from governance improvement work and succession planning because, as a whole, the job seems overwhelming and insurmountable.
This organization identified a few items to start working on outside of meetings and gradually accomplished several deliberate priorities. Their method of starting small led them to improved preparedness should there be an emergency or planned transition.
Instead of avoiding the work because it seems to be too big a project, start where it fits best for your team and do the work gradually over time, piece-by-piece.
Start small. Take on one task at a time. Having multiple board members proactively working on small pieces of big goals will yield huge results.
These methods are most successful when the right board members [team] are in place to ensure the activities actually get done. The right team is generally board members who embrace their responsibilities and understand that they are typically required to work both in and outside of the boardroom.
In addition to breaking down huge projects into manageable tasks, I help boards think through their board-building processes to make sure they’re starting from a solid foundation of members to begin with.
It’s not uncommon for boards to use the old recruiting practice of ‘who do you know’. We consistently find that much of the talent in local communities is overlooked because there’s no intentional board identification, cultivation, and recruitment process. Instead of sticking with sourcing from personal circles of current members, boards must intentionally focus on finding a broader, diverse set of board candidates, recognizing that the goal is to identify who you need to know so that you can recruit the best candidates for your board.
I spent three years working with the University of Central Florida’s Florida Center for Nursing where we created their Nurses on Boards Leadership curriculum which was designed to prepare nurse leaders for roles on boards and to improve their board member sourcing process. This was a webinar-based program for nurse leaders who aspire to serve on boards and provided nurse participants with the prerequisite learning that ensured their readiness for board service.
Through this virtual training, we focused on best practices in board governance and provided supportive coaching that was aimed at helping these nurse leaders to connect with the board of their choice. In fact, over the three years of this project, the attainment of these critical board governance skills also prepared nurses for assuming leadership roles within their healthcare and academic institutions.
According to findings from its nonprofit survey BoardSource’s Leading With Intent 2017, found that boards are no more diverse and that the board’s composition impacts how it leads. In every board assessment that I conduct, one of the lowest scores is typically for board composition. Boards have to move from episodic focus on board recruitment and instead, establish a board culture of continuous identification and cultivation of potential board candidates 365 days a year.
You should always be thinking about your board’s makeup and members and keeping an eye out for those who would positively benefit your organization and board.
Consider your board’s composition and thoughtfully analyze where your gaps are. Boards should aim for a demographic and cognitively diverse group of servant leaders around the board table who understand and can contribute to guiding the work of the nonprofit’s business in the right direction.
Create Your Leadership Imperative for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity
While it’s important that every board discuss their unique goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion, there is no single right answer for how to reach this desired vision. Every organization will have unique needs when it comes to diversity and inclusion based on multiple considerations such as their community, and geographic area, as well as the type of organization they represent and those they serve.
Engaging in direct and productive conversations about diversity and inclusion is imperative.
Diversity and Inclusion strategies were key components of my work with the Association of Governmental Risks Pools (AGRiP). Our work consisted of a 12-month program where I served as their Inclusion Resident and designed and provided diversity and inclusion educational programs, strategies, and solutions to the organization’s members.
This work affirmed that board members and executives who prioritize the importance of achieving a deeper understanding of diversity and inclusion are better able to adapt their operations and governance strategies to meet the needs of a diverse community and create a culture where inclusivity is prioritized.
The Washington Schools Risk Management Pool has embarked on the journey of transforming its governance process to support diversity and inclusion. This governing board committed to a process of understanding their respective cognitive strengths, identifying their composition and related strengths and gaps, as well as identifying governance policies and practices that serve as barriers to building a diverse and inclusive governing board.
Another organization for whom diversity, equity, and inclusion were critical in our work together was the Society for Family Planning & Family Planning Research. Their goal was to create an authentic, inclusive professional community where diversity, equity, and inclusion are respected. This board engaged directly and intentionally with its members of color who were also primarily women, who as practitioners and researchers were frequently overlooked and underserved by historical patterns of recognition for male researchers from predominately white academic institutions.
Boards and executives can achieve meaningful results when they create spaces of understanding and opportunity.
The SFP&FPR board decided to better understand how they could support and improve diversity and inclusion throughout their membership, creating spaces where voices of members of color could be heard. To pursue these voices, we organized surveys, listening sessions and focus groups in which we heard from diverse member groups.
Tying It All Together
The Spartanburg County Foundation (SCF) is a long-term client who has seen the full impact of deliberately focusing on all of these themes.
In the realm of expectations and accountability, this Foundation had a long-standing practice of conducting annual board self-assessments. Through our work, we conducted a comprehensive review of their trustee board’s roles and responsibilities, and facilitated a process of board and leadership discussions to determine the work that was most important for the board’s engagement. We held a structured board retreat where we created a board white paper and development plan. To tie in the board’s priorities with those of the executive suite, we worked together to determine how to maximize the board-leadership partnership.
This board demonstrated the ability to rethink their traditional practices and instead embrace the expansive elements of governance. The resulting revitalization of their structures and practices in board member recruitment led to proactive planning and a continually evolving leadership structure.
Foundation board leaders are their most impactful when they embrace their roles as ambassadors and community leaders.
By asking challenging questions about disparities within their community, reviewing data through the context of persistent conditions, and daring to believe that many of these situations can be improved and resolved, the SCF’s trustee board and leaders pursued a path of seeking deeper understanding. This Foundation’s trustees and executive leaders challenged the status quo by creating a Vision Statement that espouses their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This level of bold visionary leadership was achieved through a thoughtful three-year governance journey.
Our Sincerest Gratitude to all the Boards Making a Difference
Boards are incredibly important. While the C-Suite leadership is often the face of the organization, the board has the opportunity and responsibility to be the fuel for the work of their organization.
Boards are essential and are increasingly setting goals to achieve the highest levels of performance. What we know is that boards who are striving toward excellence benefit from taking time to pause and intentionally examine and refine their work.
Through my work as a consultant, trainer, and coach, I’ve been fortunate to join boards on their unique journey. It’s exciting to see boards express passion for their missions and to understand that the best way that they can serve their missions is to achieve their highest level of performance by sharpening their governance structure, operations, and practices.
Reach out today to discuss what’s happening with your board and to determine how they can achieve the highest levels of leadership and performance.
Thanks so much for taking the time to celebrate these boards and the work we have accomplished together.
Accreditation Commission for Healthcare
Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta
Foundation for California Community Colleges
Greater Houston Community Foundation
Healthcare GA Foundation
Southeastern Council of Foundations
United Way of Greater Atlanta
Spartanburg County Foundation
Atlanta Humane Society, Inc.
Psi Chi International Psychology Honor Society
National Health Foundation
Saint Joseph’s Health System
Association of Government Insurance Risk Pools (AGRiP)
Washington School Insurance Risk Pool
Society for Family Planning and Family Planning Research
Blue Cross- Blue Shield Foundation NC
Florida Center for Nursing
Martin Luther King Sr. Collaborative
Morehouse School of Medicine
The Satcher Health Leadership Institute
Center for Developmental Learning
Alfred Street Baptist Church
Women in Government
Path Foundation Board
Bonnet House Museum and Gardens, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
USO – GA
American Association of Public Health Dentistry
Center for Development and Learning
North Hill Retirement Community
Bike New York
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Court Appointed Special Advocates (GA, AL, LA and NJ)
National Coalition of 100 Black Women
Training, Conferences and Coaching Clients
Atlanta Neighborhood Charter Schools
Beacon of Hope
Good Samaritan Health and Wellness Center
Helping in His Name Ministries
Horizon Theatre Company
Meals on Wheels Atlanta
Quality Care for Children
The Elaine Clark Center
True Colors Theatre Company
VOX Teens Company
Center for Black Women’s Wellness
Community Friendship, Inc.
Culture Connect, Inc.
Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy
Mary Hall Freedom House, Inc.
Museum of Contemporary Art of GA
North Fulton Child Development Association
Project Community Connections
Chapman Cultural Center
North Carolina Center for Nonprofits Annual Conference
Robin Hood Foundation
Young Audiences for Art, Inc.
Habitat for Humanity International Conference
Alliance for a Better Nonprofit Conference
Project Management Institute- Atlanta
GA Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential
All About Developmental Disabilities
Kansas Health Foundation
The Association for Animal Welfare Professionals Conference
Community Foundation of Broward