For nearly 40 years, non-profit Common Ground has served its community well, providing crisis response services, support and advocacy, and residential programs. Along the way, it merged with another human services organization, continued to garner the respect of its local community mental health agency, and expanded its programs to the point where it now serves about 50,000 people annually.
So when its executive director of 20 years, Tony Rothschild, announced his intention to reenergize and reinvigorate Common Ground’s board, one might have thought, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
As CEO, Rothschild helped build Common Ground from 20 staff members and a $750,000 budget in 1990 to 200 people and an $11.5 million budget today. He was selected by the McGregor Fund to be one of the first Eugene A. Miller Fellows, earning a 15-month, self-designed sabbatical to rejuvenate himself and to do something of benefit for his organization or field. Enhancing board governance was one component of that sabbatical.
“Hearing a presentation in Boston about board meetings validated my thought that they aren’t as engaging as they could be and that members don’t have enough impact, even if they love the cause. It really ignited a passion to find a way to make board meetings meaningful. Board retreats are more interesting than board meetings, because that’s where board members talk about real issues. That’s the kind of discussion you want at every board meeting.”
Key concepts of board change and improvement crystallized for Rothschild when he took a two-month, online course from The Hauser Center of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and spoke with William Ryan, who with Richard Chait and Barbara Taylor, authored Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards.
Their book advances the notion that as non-profit CEOs have trended toward stronger, more dynamic leadership roles, board members have trended toward managerial and supportive roles, focusing on essential, but more mundane operational issues including budgets, audits, facilities maintenance, marketing and fundraising. As a result of these trends, board members are bored and frustrated with the lack of meaningful discussion around important issues and challenges.
The three authors recommend changing the way boards govern to focus on three areas:
Four tips for more effective governance
1. Take the time to do it right. Engage board members, and don’t forget about communicating with committee members along the way. Many of those people may ultimately join the board.
- Fiduciary—meeting the legal responsibilities
- Strategic—setting the course for the organization and ensuring the appropriate resources are available
- Generative—considering broad issues, new ideas, problems and opportunities
“Generative governance engages and challenges trustees intellectually. It’s what leaders do best. Yet most boards spend most of their time on fiduciary work, and they devote little time to the generative mode,” Chait says.
At Common Ground, Rothschild and the board set up a committee to evaluate the Governance as Leadership model and its implications for their agency.
“We asked ourselves a question: if the board hadn’t met for the past two years, what would be different, and the answer was, nothing. We knew it was time to change,” Rothschild said.
Common Ground board past president Gary Dembs said: “I welcomed the idea because it meant engaging the board in a fresh way. I was excited about it, and I think it energized everyone.”
Four elements of board change
First, the board decided to reorganize and reduce the number of standing committees from eight to five:
Second, the format of the board meetings was changed significantly:
• A consent agenda replaced the laundry list of routine matters that did not require explanation but did require board approval.
• Individual committee reports were eliminated at the meeting and made available off line for all board members.
• Rothschild changed his written CEO report to the much livelier, quicker, but equally informative “Pecha Kucha” Japanese presentation method, which features 20 slides with 20 seconds each of explanation.
Third, the board cut down the number of staff presentations about Common Ground programs. Instead, board members and trustees were encouraged to “wander around and hang out” at the programs themselves to learn about them, build connections, and experience the passion of Common Ground’s mission.
The fourth and biggest change—the one that would be given the most time and attention at each meeting—was the addition of a generative question, a question designed to engage their passion, imagination, and sense of the future in a detailed discussion. In Common Ground board meetings, trustees now consider questions like these:
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