Fresh perspective can transform… well, almost anything.
When a new BoardEffect administrator recently took the reins from her predecessor, she knew she could leverage her still outside perspective to benefit the board. In studying the multiple board and committee workrooms in her platform, she recognized an organic “design” of workflow and information management that reflected users’ initial learning process. Each workroom had developed its own system for organizing information. Missing, however, were strategic naming and archiving conventions that would promote efficiency and best practice utilization of the tool. By looking through a new lens, she quickly identified ways to enhance board members’ experience with their platform and, subsequently, on the board.
Adding new players certainly can trigger change, but progress, improvement, and innovation need not depend on new people. Sometimes new thinking occurs as the result of new technology, new data, new challenges, or even a new year. Indeed, now is an opportune time for boards to look differently at what they do, how and why they do it, and whom they include.
Many boards regard year-end as an opportunity to reflect on organizational shifts and successes. Some also celebrate their accomplishments at a social event, perhaps in conjunction with staff appreciation. The calendar provides a built-in reminder to ensure the board honors its annual obligations to the organization, even if year-end is not when given activities happen.
According to Nonprofit Law Blog, boards should both reflect on the past and consider the future in several key areas, summarized as follows:
- Elections – Consider the status of officer and director vacancies while ensuring elections are held in keeping with your organization’s bylaws.
- Board – Review board composition and performance to determine not only board recruiting needs, but also strategies around the recruiting process as well as training/development, meetings, oversight, policy-development, and planning.
- Committees – Assess the overall committee structure as well as the function, performance, and composition of each committee, ensuring proper delegation to, oversight of, and effectiveness of each.
- Budget – Review and approve the annual budget (typically prepared by or with staff) before every new fiscal year.
- Executive’s Performance – Conduct an annual performance review of the chief executive and include a review of his/her job description and compensation to ensure each is appropriate. (Similarly, find ways to assess and enhance the relationship between your board and CEO.)
- Mission – Review your organization’s purpose statement and mission against the activities it conducted over the year to determine whether your organization remains on track.
- Programs (and Plans) – Monitor progress against the strategic plan throughout the year but request a program update to help ensure activities are on target.
- Form 990 – Review this required financial form before it’s submitted to the IRS, knowing it paints a picture not only of your organization’s financial status, but its governance function as well.
- Legal Compliance – Work with staff and legal counsel, as needed, to review your organization’s legal status, ensure ethical integrity, and identify potential concerns.
- Risk Management – Identify and assess your organization’s risk areas, review insurance coverage, and develop and implement appropriate risk management policies.
Fundraising is another area of critical importance to review, in terms of both status and process. In order to ensure your organization has sufficient resources to achieve its mission, your board should develop and enforce policies around “giving and getting” funds. Your board also needs to ensure there is a reasonable development plan to diversify funding streams, then monitor – as well as support — progress against that plan.
When looking back, or ahead, as a board, an annual workplan or calendar can be a useful tool. In many cases, the above items can be scheduled at specific, predictable times (ie. elections occur in advance of the new fiscal year, the form 990 is submitted five months after the fiscal year ends). Perhaps not coincidentally, the matters with clear deadlines are those that boards tend to prioritize. Other areas warrant review and might benefit even more from some fresh perspective.
NCVO Knowhow Nonprofit suggests looking at the board’s annual agenda and scheduling time to adequately explore these areas:
- Mandatory Items – These are concrete tasks your board must complete every year around the same time (ie. budgeting and compiling an annual report).
- Governance Items – These are the processes that inform how your board works (ie. board recruitment, decision-making, meeting agendas, board assessment).
- Oversight – Your board should consider queries such as: Does the board get the right information at the right time? What organizational priorities are monitored and how? How, when, and what does the board communicate to and with stakeholders?
- External Perspectives – As the external environment continues to change, your board must explore how its stakeholders’ needs are evolving, especially in the context of what other organizations are doing. Do strategic priorities still make sense and are there new ways to achieve them (ie. collaboration with other organizations)?
With such a broad range of responsibility for the organization, your board can easily keep focused on questions of who, what, when, how, and why do their organizations function as they do. To freshen your perspective, though, ask different questions: who else, what if, when might, how else, and why not? Year-end provides an ideal opportunity for generative thinking among board members to ensure their ongoing work is continually aligned with organizational priorities, community need, and best practices.