Tips to Improve Board Health

For many charities it’s back to the boardroom this September after a summer hiatus. Summer can provide a much-needed rest for management and governance volunteers, perhaps even more so if your board has shown signs of poor health (See post: June 2016). No one likes to think charities fall ill to poor governance but it happens.


Improving board health is a marathon not a sprint and every step matters in reaching the ultimate destination. Boards who demonstrate healthy team behavior are more likely to have stronger relationships with management, make better decisions, attract and retain board talent and lead more socially impactful organizations. I have outlined below what I think are helpful tips to develop more effective, healthier governance teams.

Understand Motivation. There are numerous reasons why someone would volunteer to join a board – altruism, affinity to the cause, corporate assignment or career positioning. Whatever the reason, board members should be seeking to understand what motivates each other, how that motivation aligns with the board aims and mandate, and how it may intertwine with shared personal goals.

If it comes to light that the underlying motivation of some is in considerable conflict with the group and the mandate of the organization this will need to be addressed quickly. Adhering to your recruitment protocols, commitment summaries, evaluation processes and attendance monitoring can help to keep members motivated for all the right reasons.

Commit to Evaluate. If your board isn’t conducting formal evaluations of its performance, now is the time to start. There are a number of online templates available to adapt to your board’s addition criteria (individual/ team). Like employee performance reviews, formal board reviews should be conducted annually with time dedicated to create realistic response plans and the monitoring processes. Setting up a formal working committee to design tools, educate board members on evaluation and to process the findings can make a profound difference to achieve higher board performance.

Good evaluation tools help identify critical gaps between individual expectations and satisfaction, however it’s up to the full board to close the gap by being true, vigilant and mindful of the mission you steward. A common pitfall to avoid with evaluations is to look to where you have done well, express a sigh of relief and shelf the results until the next cycle. Healthy boards dig it and track the continuous improvement they believe is in the best interest of their group and the organization.

Dedicate Time to Build Trust. An important pillar of any one person’s performance is the ability to trust others and be trustworthy. Being an active and effective board member is dependent upon the entire group’s willingness to be candid, maintain confidentiality, create a climate of mutual respect and transparency.

Trust often comes from shared experiences at and away from the board table. By building in social time prior to all your meetings, scheduling activities away from the boardroom, having chair-member one-on-one discussions can collectively help build a social-professional connection and maintain trust amongst your team.

Seek external guidance. Some of the best advice or support can come from external, objective coach who can view the board dynamics through a different lens. By appointing outside help to navigate your board’s pathway to better health can ensure everyone has a voice, opinions are heard and all members are actively committed to the heavy lifting. A third-party professional can be your board’s mentor and navigator.

There are numerous professional facilitators who work in this area. If your board has chosen to hire a professional coach appoint one who can forge an appropriate level of confidence and comfort with the board, while possessing the knowledge, skill and experience in organizational behavior and nonprofit governance.

It’s expected charities and nonprofits will experience rough patches as they navigate board and staff turnover, changing social conditions and increased public and donor scrutiny. This is all the more reason to take the pulse of your board’s performance and put a good health plan in place.

If after reading this article you decided that it was helpful, share it with your network and/or reply with a comment below. Thank you!

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