Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Very Short Course in Getting On, Being On, and Being President of a Board

Joining a board of directors can be most rewarding. Whether it's a for-profit or nonprofit, you get to make a difference in an organization, work with capable people, and may make contacts to abet your career.

Here's a quick course on how to get onto a board, the right board, how to be a good board member, and an effective and well-liked board president.

What's involved?
Typically, you're hiring and firing key leadership, playing with budgets, working with leadership to set strategy, doing fundraising, and solving all manner of problems. In short, you're core to the organization's success.

Getting aboard
If you're rich or hold a prestigious job, you may be solicited to be on boards. Assuming you're not, not to worry. Many small non-profits are eager for good board members.

Start by asking yourself, what cause(s) do you particularly care about? For example, I care about community theatre. If I hadn't been asked to join Chanticleers Theatre's board, I would have called a few board presidents of local community theatres and said something like:
"I've been involved in community theatre as an actor and director and would like to join a board. I believe in the power of community theatre. It's among the few recreations aimed at older folks, it's affordable to nearly everyone, the plays inspire, educate, and entertain, and cast, crew, and other staff often really grow from their involvement in theatre, not to mention they have a good time. I have planning, writing, and marketing skills and would be willing to donate some time by joining a board. Might you need someone like me?"
If they express interest, don't jump too quickly. Some boards are more trouble than they're worth. Ask questions such as, "Tell me a little about your board?" "What sorts of issues do you grapple with?" "What should I know about being on this board before joining it?" "What are be the time and financial expectations of board members" "What, if any, legal liability would I be assuming (The Sarbanes-Oxley legislation increased board member's liability) and/or "Would you mind if I sat in on a board meeting before we decide whether I should join?"

Being a good board member
On most boards, your major responsibility is to be a good participant at monthly or quarterly meetings and to put in a few hours a month on some subcommittee.

How to be a good participant at board meetings? Mostly, it's the same as being a good participant in any meeting: Listen more than talk--watch body language; pick the right time to talk. Look to emphasize the positive. Make suggestions sparingly and tactfully. Acknowledge the contributions of others to your idea. Volunteer to take on tasks outside the meetings, and if you can afford it, volunteer some money. My favorite way to do that is to issue a matching challenge, for example, "I'll buy a half-page ad in the program if someone else on the board will."

Being a good president
As I mentioned, many small non-profits are hungry for board members. That's probably why, after just six months after I joined Chanticleers' board, they asked me to be the president. Now, after a year and half in that role, here are some things I do that seem to work well:
  • I believe that food is a lubricant of effective groups. So when a board member, on a one-time basis, offered to host us for dinner and it worked wonderfully, I praised her and asked if she might do it again. She did, after which I lavished her with more praise and now she does it every month. If you're not that lucky, have the board meet at a restaurant.
  • Most issues don't require discussion at a board meeting. I simply email or phone a board member or two. Sometimes, I'll email the entire board on some issue.
  • I mainly put items on the agenda for the board meeting that require live discussion among the board. That ensures that the 2 1/2 hours of board meeting are spent on tasks that can't otherwise be done as effectively.
  • If there's a thorny issue on the agenda, for example, a controversial idea on which I'd like support, I phone or email key board members to discuss the idea. That way, the meeting is less likely to be bogged down by protracted debates.
  • A week before each meeting, I email the board a draft agenda, encouraging members to suggest changes. I usually put more items on the agenda than we'll have time for, which tends to keep things moving. Sometimes, I put the most important item near the end of the agenda, which motivates people to expeditiously get through the earlier items.
  • The first agenda item is always: 6:15 - 6:30: Fellowship and general merriment. Wine or champagne are served. The meeting always starts at 6:30 pm and ends promptly at 9:00. We eat dinner as we work.
  • To keep things moving, as soon as I sense that most or all the major points regarding an agenda item have been expressed, I'll synthesize and call for a vote. Sometimes, someone will object and say they want to make another point. That's fine but often they don't and that keeps things moving.
  • While I'm aware that interrupting is rude, two of my seven board members tend to be long-winded and redundant. I interrupt them whenever I feel their disappointment at being interrupted is outweighed by our getting more done and the other board members' appreciating that I interrupted them.
  • I look for every opportunity to issue earned praise. We're all volunteers on the board and the least I can do is give earned attaboys/girls.
  • I haven't had to do this but if necessary, I'd take the time to recruit excellent board members and train them. I have given private suggestions to a couple of members on how they can be more effective. I have had to neutralize one board member who was usurping power well beyond his skillset and poisoning the board with his behind-the-scenes, unfair backstabbing. If necessary, I'd orchestrate the exiting of such a member.
  • I try to keep a sense of perspective. I recognize that we're merely one community theatre among hundreds, and that theatre isn't life and death. So I rarely take a stand on something when the majority wants something else. Usually, greater good accrues by letting the majority have their way than for me to try to ram my idea down their throats.
In sum, the words I try to keep in mind in my role as president are "statesman," "smart problem solver," "wise steward," "motivator," and "fun."

1 comment:

Terry said...


Thanks so much for these tips. I am in a similar circumstance, being on the board of our local Arts Council (that brings in four touring performers for live performances each year) for the past year and now becoming president later this month.

I agree that local boards are a place to make a real difference in our communities.

In particular, I will keep your five suggested words in mind for my new role.

I have followed your blog for a number of years and appreciate the informative and challenging content.


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