we are passionate about our cause, we go out and recruit skilled
people we think share that passion. Together, they could
accomplish miracles for our community. But far too often, they
are much less than the sum of their parts. Even when they show
up, the discussions are poor and everyone is bored.
They can be startled into action by liability issues or a
crisis, but they fall back into lethargy once they establish the
audit committee, carry out a due diligence check list or hire a
Meanwhile, the need they are serving in the community grows,
when the organization should be successful at reducing the need.
So what can a champion of action do? Whether you are the chair,
a director or the ED, try these ideas in whatever order makes
sense in your organization.
Idea One: Drag them out of
their comfort zone
It is not enough
just to recruit new voices to the board – you tried that
already, right? And they quickly got educated in how we do
things around here, or they were treated as tokens if they
represented a new demographic for the board.
If they are out of touch with the people being served, find a
way to immerse them in the client’s world, through direct
service volunteering, clients or former clients as speakers at
board meetings, tours of the worst parts of the community,
whatever. Have your health centre board members ever ridden a
harm reduction van all night?
Also bring in speakers from communities that are having more
success in reducing the need, with fresh approaches. Talk about
which innovations might work here.
And by the way, recruit those fresh faces and new demographics,
but not as tokens and not with an expectation that they will
shut up and listen for six months. That means training existing
members, not just orienting new ones. For example, proven
volunteers from your client advisory committee can come in
prepared to offer ideas at their first meeting. If they do not
speak at their first meeting, put them on the agenda for the
second meeting. Make it clear there is time set aside, and
explicit permission, for them to give their initial impressions
Idea Two: Develop a shared
A single organization can
develop an excellent vision for the community as it would like
it to be, with a good strategic planning facilitator who takes a
community-driven governance approach.
But that vision would be so much more compelling and achievable
if developed with the community instead of for the
community. And it has a better chance of being accepted as
Bring together groups with related missions for a facilitated
forum to see if they can agree on common actions. Make sure to
include consumer and advocacy groups, not just service
organizations. They will make sure you do not come up with one
of those totally uninspiring visions of being the biggest and
best organization of its type. In fact, they may help you see a
future where you are not needed.
Anyone in human service has to know that caregivers do not have
the same program or outcome priorities as those they care for.
In the same way, professionally-staffed organizations are
usually out of sync with those being served. And they are often
misunderstood as well. The dialogue can help align priorities
and clear up some of the misunderstandings, though you may need
patience to develop a common language.
But now everyone on the board is aware of the wonderful
potential for making the community far better, and will be
energized to be part of making that happen.
Once an inspiring and far-reaching vision is developed, each
organization can consider what its role will be in achieving the
vision (its mission, in effect). At the next common meeting,
these can be examined for gaps, overlaps and especially
synergies. New collaborations will form, and the rate of
progress thereafter should astound you.
Idea Three: Make board
Are you still looking at
agendas that are almost indistinguishable from the prior six
meetings? Toss those agendas. Look at what decisions will be
needed, and schedule discussions on those decisions at least one
board meeting before the decision is to be made. Allow most of
the board meeting time for those discussions.
What’s that you say? Board members do not know enough to discuss
the issues meaningfully? Well, when asked, they always say they
cannot ask good questions or put forward good ideas if they have
do not have time to learn and think. So now you have to
implement better advance board information systems so they
understand what they are discussing and making decisions about.
Yes, that will change the way staff and committees operate –
entirely for the better. They have to think more about their
recommendations and explain what options they considered and
what criteria they used. And they have to plan their time
So after the formalities and the informalities of getting the
meeting started, the first real agenda section is about making
decisions. Real decisions – because at last month’s discussion,
the board gave direction to staff or committees about what
additional information or analysis was needed, and perhaps some
guidance in principle.
And those opening informalities did include an open update round
about what is happening in your community, sector, funding
sources and government actions, didn’t it? No point making
decisions about the community that was. Make them for the
community it is becoming and with knowledge of the environmental
factors that will influence it. And besides, an urgent item here
may require an agenda change.
Then you have the discussion items, and the board education
portion. Suddenly there is no time for oral reports – and who
will miss them? All reports can be distributed in advance for
review, and only significant questions about them are worthy of
board time. If an approval or discussion arises from a report,
it becomes a decision or discussion item on the agenda, separate
from the information report.
Even a real agenda will make a difference in attendance.
Actually explain what items will be considered - not “Audit
Committee” but “Weaknesses noted in management letter”; not “AGM
Update” but “Proposal to integrate educational conference with
AGM”. After some real discussions, based on good advance
material, board members may start looking forward to meetings.
Idea Four: Make use of
skills and interests
We bemoan directors who
are recruited for their skills and knowledge but do not use
them. Meanwhile, the directors are telling their friends and
family that they think their skills and knowledge are wasted.
Some who volunteer are rejected because staff see the offer as a
chance to meddle or micromanage, particularly if the director
comes from a very small or all-volunteer organization where the
board did do almost everything. The directors do not understand
that an ED who does not want one of them to overhaul the
computer system in some idiosyncratic way might be delighted to
have that director as an advisor on procurement of a new
database system. And no one tells them – most organizations
provide little or no governance training.
If the chair and ED sit down once a year with each director to
talk about what s/he would like to learn, what skills they want
to offer and what type of work interests them, the organization
might be saved from high turnover and problematic recruitment.
And it would get the benefit of those skills and knowledge, used
appropriately. Channel the energy and expertise to what the
organization needs, but be flexible if an initiative relevant to
the mission but not on the current strategic priorities list can
be done by one or two people with minimal cost or staff support.
And if there is no fit, then at least both sides find out, and
the individual can find a different organization to serve. A
board spot is freed up for someone with the skills and knowledge
needed today. As priorities change, the first person may be
Idea Five: Get directors
out there explaining what the money is for
See above – remember the
part about an inspiring vision and your organization’s role in
making it happen? And the part about hearing directly from those
who benefit from your organization’s services? The combination
of involvement in meaningful strategic planning and having
talked to real clients (or proxies if your clients are animals
or the environment) allows your directors to speak from the
heart. Find ways for them to be ambassadors, without asking them
to ask for money unless they are among the few who want to.
(Note: I am talking here about donations and grants, not about
asking friends to come to a gala or a golf tournament.)
Now that it is THEIR plan, for real not just via a rubber stamp,
they can be effective voices. Once they go out trying to
convince others of the great value the organization brings to
the community, they will want to do more internally as well to
add to that value. Now they are part of a board that adds value,
instead of draining resources. The advance documents that staff
grumble about in Idea Two will seem worthwhile to staff once
they see the positive differences the board is making, in the
community and within.
Since these board members will recruit board members that share
their enthusiasm, I predict you will never see backsliding into
an apathetic board.
Garthson is a consultant in leadership & ethics to Canada’s
Voluntary Sector, 416/512-6765 or 877/645-5417,