You Want a Board with Personality!
Over the past 20 years, I have sat on several not-for-profit (NFP) boards, three of which I had the distinct honor of serving as president. (It was certainly my distinct honor; how the boards and members-at-large may have actually felt may well have been another story.) Anyway, these three boards could not have been more different. My first board, that of the Nassau Shores Civic Association of Massapequa, Long Island was absolutely chaotic, probably because I presided over it incorrectly. I felt that (1) every member of the board should always be heard; (2) whatever they had to say was worth hearing and considering and; (3) informality was better than formality. (Ok, I know, I know, but give me break, I was young and idealistic!) This was a small board of maybe 8 or 10 members which met on a monthly basis in various members’ living rooms. While I believe our organization was ultimately effective in representing the community regarding civic improvements, engaging residents in volunteer activities, and providing social activities, especially for young families, the board itself left a lot to be desired. The good news was that our budget was miniscule, so there was little we could really screw up. The bad news was that the board did not govern or lead as it should, and my vice president and I ended up spending 15 or 20 hours a week for the three years of my term running all over Massapequa and the Town of Oyster Bay trying to do what a better managed board could have done.
Lesson # 1 – Boards need to be managed and kept on track. Don’t be afraid to shut members down who are not adding value, and maintain order using Robert’s Rules. Everyone wants to feel that something is getting accomplish – and they want to get home at a decent hour, too!
My second experience as president of an NFP organization came about 11 years later when I served as the last president of Temple Judea in Massapequa and as a founding co-president of Temple B’nai Torah (TBT) in Wantagh. TBT was formed when TJ and The Suburban Temple merged, with the new organization settling into the home of legacy Suburban. In so many ways, this merger was one of my finest moments; we combined two great but struggling religious communities into a strong and sustainable, “reinvented” synagogue. My experiences with both the board of legacy Judea and the board of the new TBT were remarkably similar, to wit – they were both populated with smart and passionate people who tended (myself included at times) to check their brains at the door and let their emotions take hold. The religious boards, at 20+ members, were much larger than the board of the civic. They, too, were difficult to control, but the larger size made the task more daunting. The term “herding cats” comes to mind. Everyone had an opinion on every topic, sometimes two or three, and every topic had to be debated, even on those rare occasions when everyone agreed! (It’s always interesting to see people argue with one another using the same arguments.) These were the most challenging boards I ever served on. From my observations and experiences, I tend to think that religious boards may just be like that. People serve because the passion that motivates them comes from deep within and, unfortunately, it does not always get distilled by the brain before being processed to the public. As emotional and difficult to manage as these boards were, they were ultimately effective, successfully completing a much needed merger. We were able to control them just enough so that work actually got done. Five years later, life is good!
Lesson # 2 – Passion for the cause motivates board members to get involved. Unchecked, however, it morphs into emotion and gums up the works. Insist on respectful interchanges between board members and, echoing Lesson # 1, don’t be afraid to shut down those who are moving off track.
My current gig is as the president of the Binghamton University Alumni Association. In so many ways, this board is the most professional of the boards on which I have served. Admittedly, unlike the other two organizations, we have the luxury of a professional director and staff to support our mission. This enables us to truly focus on the business of the board. For example, we recently spent a couple of years re-inventing ourselves. Our previous president felt that we were adrift, so with the help of an outside consultant, we took a good, hard look at ourselves. We defined and stated our mission and vision (not an easy task), and began working on implementation. In other words, we reengaged the true business of the board from which we had strayed in recent years. Through appropriate delegation of duties to board members, recruitment and engagement of nonboard committee members, and decentralization of service delivery into national and international chapters we do the work of a truly functioning board, overseeing operations, setting policy, and working in partnership with and giving direction to the professional staff to implement that policy. We guide and oversee but don’t get bogged down in minutia and administrivia. It works.
Lesson # 3 – Board members often roll up their sleeves and “get their hands dirty” helping to do the actual work of the organization. That is okay for individual members, but it is not the purpose of the board itself. The board exists to determine mission and vision and to guide the stakeholders in realizing that mission and vision.