If this headline grabbed you then you are in good company with the many non-profit leaders who want something different or more from their board.

Board culture: it’s one of our sector’s great challenges.

Strong non-profit boards are vital, but remarkably hard to develop. The good news is that the problem doesn’t lie in a perceived shortage of good candidates in your community. The biggest barrier to recruiting a better board is often internal. Your board will remain mediocre if leaders…

  1. … are not clear about the attributes they need on the board, or
  2. … feel this level of volunteer is out of reach, or
  3. … do not want a competent, high-performing board

If it’s the third reason, the challenges to the organization run deep – and that’s an article for another day.

1. Board Culture: clarify the attributes you need on the board

The tried and true method for classifying non-profit board members are based on three types of variables:

  1. Demographic (the gender, race, age and geographic balance)
  2. Professional affiliations (the industries, seniority levels and functional areas they represent)
  3. Behaviors (their engagement and loyalty to the organization, usually determined by giving history)

These variables are, of course, important – funding from institutional supporters is often contingent on demographics, and demographic balance helps ensure that all constituencies are considered in board decisions. However, when building a healthy, high-performing board, there’s something even more essential than these traditional attributes, and that is psychographics.”

Psychographic variables are attributes relating to personality, values, attitudes, interests and drivers. They are closely associated with the kind of business acumen increasingly necessary for our nonprofits to remain relevant, competitive and healthy.

Here are nine psychographic attributes I look for in recruiting ideal board members. They….

  1. … are compelled by the institution’s mission
  2. … are big thinkers that inspire others to think big
  3. … have an inner intensity and drive to make the organization excel
  4. … are modest, humble and self-effacing
  5. … lead by example
  6. … see the challenges coming
  7. … are forthright enough to address the challenges head-on
  8. … are resilient in the face of uncomfortable and hard barriers between your organization and greatness
  9. … are engaged enough – and confident enough — to debate vigorously

It’s easy to identify leaders with these attributes: When they speak – everyone listens.

The question is, how do you get these people on your board?

2. Board Culture: recruiting a psychographically effective board

First, accept that building an ideal board takes years. Keep your eye on the prize with these three techniques:

Select a recruitment team of “change agents” – The decisions made by your governance or nominating committee will affect your organization for years to come. Select this committee carefully, prioritizing individuals who represent the kind of leaders you want more of (never doubt that “like attracts like”). You want committee members who can access and compel the level of volunteers who, frankly, would be out of reach by most of your other board members. If you can only find one change agent, that’s an excellent start. If you don’t have at least one “change agent” board member who can succeed in the recruiting function, then don’t simply fall back on the best person available: use your CEO’s vision, passion and business acumen to attract your change agent from outside your current board.

Recruit with intention and full transparency – Paradoxically, it’s in your interest to not only disclose your organization’s challenges but to highlight them during the recruitment process. Business leaders thrive on problem-solving and achieving goals; the right kind of trustees gravitate to challenge (so long as they know that staff leadership has the capacity to enact change). Don’t sell your board short – my experience is that they are very often willing to do more than executives ask of them. Before their first meeting, educate new board members about the issues and explicitly communicate that you want their input – you will see them become actively engaged right out of the box.

To change culture, start with behavior – If you want engaged board members, you have to create situations that engage them – and a parade of reports does not do it. Uncomfortable as it might be, you must encourage robust dialogue in which dissent is not only welcome but prized. Resist the temptation to script or plan such conversations – that will only restrict inquiry, miss opportunities and hinder growth. Strong and confident leaders are open to both the risks and rewards of such candid conversations because those dynamic debate conversations are the wellspring of volunteer commitment and fresh, new ideas.

A board evaluation accelerates the transformation

When embarking on a journey of cultural change, it’s helpful to know where you’re starting from. A board evaluation by outside professional counsel can map the path forward. CEOs and trustees are often grateful for the chance to reveal hidden truths in these confidential interviews. Inquiries probe:

  • How power dynamics affect board effectiveness
  • How board conversations could be made more meaningful
  • In what circumstances trustees feel comfortable offering opposing viewpoints
  • Whether a culture of dysfunctional politeness stifles inquiry and debate
  • How an environment of accountability and ownership could be achieved

These and other questions uncover many issues, from easily-addressed operational matters (meeting length, board agendas) to pricklier concerns (gaps in the board’s knowledge of operations or gaffes in their strategic decision-making).

Post-evaluation, counsel is in a great position to coach leaders on how to make the board’s experience more rewarding and make their efforts more impactful for your constituents. Everybody wins.

The bottom line

If you don’t want be a barrier to a better board, the solution is easy. Adjust the mindset inside your organization – by getting clear on the kind of board you need and shaking off any doubts that you can achieve that vision.

K2 Consulting Group offers board evaluations and retreats that will galvanize the board and determine strategic priorities.

Ready to get started on reaching your potential? Contact us to get started.