Can Nonprofits Boards Build Peer-To-Peer Relationships?
By: Eugene H. Fram
There have not been any nonprofit authoritarian-visionary leaders like Apple’s Steve Jobs. Successful nonprofits are built by developing peer-to-peer relationships between the board and management, with the latter group representing operational leadership of the staff.
But building peer-to-peer relationships continue to be an Achilles heel for nonprofits for the following reasons.
Internally Boards Have
• Agendas that tend to be packed with operational reports and items.
• A continual parade of new board members entering the board scene to meet rotation requirements.
• Responsibilities that are secondary to directors’ primary vocations interests.
• Officers who are constantly changing. Many volunteer presidents and board chairs only have one-year terms.
• Many directors who live time-compressed lifestyles, and may face significant challenges in fulfilling their board obligations.
Who may be in a position to improve peer-to-peer relations?
• Meet with directors individually or in small groups (up to four) to have informal discussions of issues to get know each other as individuals.
• Make certain that their peers note outside achievements, personal and professional. Example: I was on a board where a director was promoted to the VP position of a large firm. Others only learned about it when it was causally mentioned at a meeting. The CEO missed a great opportunity in not formally sending emails to staff and directors absent from the meeting.
• Where possible, take every opportunity to have informal gatherings of the directors and their significant others. This may be a post New Years reception at his/h home or the celebration of an organizational achievement at the office.
• Where the problem is substantial (board members do not even know the names of other directors) have a discussion with every board chair to see what creative devices can be developed to alleviate the problem. Example: Make certain that time is set aside at the end or the beginning of each meeting for one director to describe in detail the successes/challenges they are facing in their jobs or in retirement–a “getting to know you” time. Set a precedent of only asking for a 5 minute presentation.
The Board Chair:
• Appoint a mentor for each new board member and ask the two to sit together at the first three meetings.
• Have an informal conference call or meting with the new board members and his/h mentors after six-months tenure.
• Be proactive in moving the tempo of the meeting along. Don’t allow the CEO to make overly detailed reports on boilerplate actions. I once watched a CEO read a complete list of health care regulations that were dull, nobody understood and took about 15 minutes of meeting time.
I have noted that most nonprofit directors will not contact others informally unless there is a pressing reason for it. In fact, the California 2003 Brown Act specifically forbids such directors’ discussions of business where the organization is a city council, board of supervisors, and district boards.
But to work efficiently and effectively as a team, nonprofit directors have to get to know each other, both formally and informally. Here are some untested suggestions:
• Have a small task force to develop ways to achieve the goals that meet local situations.
• Ask established board members to meet informally with new board members twice a year, either by conference call or personally.
• Occasionally have social receptions at convenient times for directors and their significant others. I have seen one CEO simply ask them to come to the office for brief afternoon “sherry sessions.”
• Take a risk and suggest dinner for those who want to participate. Costs are divided evenly among those who attend.
• Extend afternoon meetings into the early evening with a speaker of interest and a light food fare.