In large part, the implementation of proper governance in the not-for-profit sphere has been upsettingly recent and in many instances has been in reaction to high-profile charity scandals. Most associations have a somewhat disorganised origin; founded and operated for many years on an entirely voluntary basis. Because of this, the implementation of effective governance structures can present painful challenges and resistance. There are some easy Dos and Don’ts to help overcome these hurdles.
Know your roles
Board members need to know their duties. An initial briefing for candidates, followed by signing a volunteer agreement and a thorough onboarding process will do the trick.
Create the culture based on values
A first and important step to a healthy organisational culture comes from how the board functions and communicates. Defining core values and using them as guardrails for all membership engagement, activities and partnerships must be sacrosanct.
Listen (…and hear)
It’s a simple one, but often abandoned in lively debate. A board full of people focused on having their next turn to orate is not one focused on good governance.
Ambition is a virtue. For a board, ambition is critical and its absence leads to torpidity. Governance need not be to the detriment of an association’s ambition, rather it facilitates it. Ambition need only stay within the lanes created by a strategic plan and a proper risk management framework.
Tell the organisation’s story
An organisation can do a lot of good, but without the board telling its story there is a failure to assure sustainability. Deliver on the strategic plan and proudly inform anyone that will listen!
Engage the members
Focusing on the strategic plan, work plan, and governing documents to the exclusion of engaging members might still give the appearance of a good governance structure, but in reality will lead to mission drift and stagnation. Listening to what the members want is not a difficult undertaking and can take many shapes. A relationship with the members helps to ground the board and keep focus on the strategy and core values.
Support your professional staff
Board and staff must have a solid working relationship. At the core of this is mutual respect, but beyond that is the duty of care of the board to the association’s staff. Making the staff’s wellbeing an ongoing board consideration contributes to a positive organisational culture. A board does not need to parent the staff, quite often it can be as simple as creating an environment in which honest exchange can take place and communicating the board’s continued support of the staff. In addition, a simple way to ensure a well-functioning association is to listen to the staff and their experience and advice. They are the professionals hired to do the job, getting muddled up in operations distracts from the actual work of the board.
Engage in groupthink
It’s somewhat of a buzz phrase and a get-out-of-jail free card for when things go awry and no one is to be held accountable, but groupthink is entirely detrimental to the health of an association. It must be constantly guarded against through mindful assessment of board engagements by all board members.
Strategic planning is clearly important and crisis management has an important role. What does not in any way benefit an organisation is kneejerk, reactionary decision-making. Considered deliberation within the established framework is always the answer. Don’t get spooked easily!
Setting expectations is important for morale, reputation, resource management. Avoidance of overpromising does not undermine the advice to be ambitious, but it does mean that ambition should lead to achievable goals with room for over delivery.
Ignore skills mix and board development
A board that sits around the table in a self-contented manner without engaging in regular self-review is a recipe for disaster. Keeping a balance of skillsets of board members and facilitating ongoing development of the board is the only way to prevent deficiencies from taking root. When a board becomes unbalanced, even in a short period of time, it can take years to fully repair the damage.
Worry about individual credit
All board members should get acknowledgement for what is a big commitment (if being done right). However, getting tied in knots divvying up credit is a complete distraction and inevitably leads to board disunity.
Sacrifice core values for growth
Core values can never be infringed, even for growth or benefit. Don’t lose your soul to gain the world.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. And it omits the basic requirements for a full suite of documentation, policies, procedures, board meeting preparation and conduct. Adopting a governance code will make this a straightforward process. The Dos and Don’ts here are intended to smooth the ongoing implementation of good governance. Best of luck on your good governance journey!
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