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Meeting of The Minds: To get the most from your board, figure out what you need—and what trustees can provide.

Category: Museum Magazine
An orange colored board table with chairs.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Museum magazine.

Academics and practitioners have written for decades about the roles nonprofit board members should perform. With all this scholarship, you’d think it would be a settled topic. Yet board work remains a hot topic whenever two or more nonprofit CEOs get together. When I find myself in one of these conversations, we are not generally debating the board’s fundamental roles as much as exploring the raggedy edges around role fulfillment.

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During a particularly thoughtful conversation at a recent QM2 CEO Roundtable, I was struck by how the diversity of our field impacts our experiences and perspectives about boards. At the roundtable, the CEO of a large, high-visibility museum was discussing work to expand the board’s peer-to-peer fundraising results, while the CEO of the small natural history center was struggling just to get her board to make personal gifts. Both were describing their board’s role in fundraising, but they were in very different places within that board responsibility.

As I listened to the discussion, I thought about how so many things today seem to be situation-specific. From precision medicine to individualized education, the macro-trend seems to be adaptation of universal standards to the unique circumstances of a basic unit.

Maybe we have asked and answered the question “What are a board’s duties?” Now we can begin to ask, “What are this board’s duties?” This is a subtle but significant shift—and, naturally, the answer will be different for each institution. However, I have found that there are three key board member attributes that can help any organization get and stay on the right track.

Roles and Responsibilities 2.0

First, let’s review the standard board roles and responsibilities. Some experts emphasize organizational governance as the board’s highest responsibility. Others highlight financial sustainability and fundraising. Passion for the organization’s work, a laser-like focus on the mission, and an unwavering commitment to ethical practices typically make an appearance on most lists.

Below is a good summary of the basic duties of a nonprofit board, courtesy of BoardSource’s Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, now in its third edition.

  1. Determine mission and purpose.
  2. Select the chief executive.
  3. Support and evaluate the chief executive.
  4. Ensure effective planning.
  5. Monitor and strengthen programs and services.
  6. Ensure adequate financial resources.
  7. Protect assets and provide proper financial oversight.
  8. Build a competent board.
  9. Ensure legal and ethical integrity.
  10. Enhance the organization’s public standing.

But if board members are to perform these duties in real-world situations, we need to consider the skills and experiences these members bring to the role. Therefore, let’s reconsider the above list through the frame of a staff job description. The board member job description might look something like this:

  1. Strong strategic capabilities, including a history of correctly distinguishing strategic and tactical issues, with considerable experience with the former
  2. Ability to think strategically and recognize potential disruptions in an industry different from your own
  3. Previous success working on a team with individuals from different fields and diverse backgrounds
  4. A track record of speaking up and asking questions, even when believing everyone else in the room more fully understands the topic
  5. A thorough understanding of budgeting, accounting, and financial reporting within a nonprofit accounting framework
  6. Knowledge of risk management and basic legal principles
  7. Experience recruiting, evaluating, and giving feedback to a senior-level employee in a different industry
  8. Willingness to leverage personal relationships to request support, or to assist others in requesting support
  9. Ability and willingness to speak persuasively on behalf of the organization
  10. A “dot connector” who can both see and seize opportunities to link the organization to outside resources
  11. Experience with moral awareness and ethical decision-making within a group
  12. Ability to make dispassionate and objective decisions for an organization in whose mission you find personal passion and attachment

And while we would be delighted if our top candidates also exhibited excitement for the work and passion for the cause, it is unlikely those attributes alone would be enough to land the job described above. However, sometimes those are the only two criteria nominating committees need to see before they offer someone a board position.

When we really analyze the skill set needed to perform typical board duties, it’s clear that successful board members need more than an expressed interest in the mission and a willingness to serve, no matter how sincere. They may even need more than the gold standard “affluence and influence.”

I wonder how many board members have the skills and experiences listed here. And of that number, how many are willing to engage with the nonprofit sector and, in particular, museums.

Let’s look at the numbers. BoardSource says the average nonprofit board has 16 members. Applying this average to the IRS’s count of 1.4 million nonprofits, we can estimate that there are roughly 22.4 million nonprofit board seats in the United States. However, given that people can and do serve on more than one board, the actual number of nonprofit board members in the United States is likely lower.

In any event, there are millions of people serving on nonprofit boards. The US Census estimated there were 254 million adults in the nation in 2016, so we can do the math and then ask ourselves: Does 1 in 12 members of the US adult population have the skills listed above? If so, how many of them also have the interest, time, and passion to donate their considerable talent to the community?

Three Ways Any Board Member Can Bring Value

Just as the law of supply and demand impacts the broader labor market, it too affects board service. It is conceivable that the museum field could experience a shortage of skilled board talent—indeed, some communities might already be feeling that pinch. If so, we do have options: We could adjust the duties to reduce the skills required, likely increasing the pool of available applicants. We could decrease the number of nonprofits or the average board size or both. Or, as is most likely currently happening, we can adjust all these factors and more based on each museum’s unique circumstances.

So, if we hypothesize that actual board work related to the fundamental roles might be evolving in response to institutional needs and/or market conditions, what might that look like? I asked several experienced museum and other nonprofit professionals to describe what their boards are doing right now to bring value to their organizations. Albeit qualitative and limited, what I heard fit into three basic themes.

1. Have a willingness to learn. Board members used to come to nonprofits to share their wisdom, which they amassed from the rough-and-tumble of the free market. But these days the learning is less asymmetrical. Board members have as much or more to gain from their nonprofit experiences as we glean from their for-profit experiences. In fact, a recent study published in the Academy of Management Proceedings found that Fortune 500 corporate boards that had ties with nonprofit organizations, especially social-welfare-oriented nonprofits, had a decreased level of corporate misconduct. The key findings for BoardSource’s Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Best Practices were that boards that learn more about their nonprofit’s programs are more effective overall. Not surprisingly, the more board members know, the better they advocate.

2. Extend civic reach. The CEO and museum leadership team cannot effectively reach every constituency. Plus, as the “paid help,” our voices often lack the extra dollop of credibility that comes from a volunteer who is a firsthand witness to our societal impact. Board members can provide an enormous lift with external constituencies, and not just those segments with financial resources—although such efforts are much appreciated! The right board members can help museums reach underrepresented and financially fragile populations just like they reach key community influences, elected officials, and captains of industry. And civic reach is not just about highlighting success: a board member who can head offer a negative community reaction provides one of the most effective forms of outreach.

3. Help the CEO think. Trust can create a space in which dreams, half-baked concepts, and unexplored thoughts can begin to take form. If the CEO can build an atmosphere of safety and trust with the chair, executive committee, or an engaged individual board member, together they can advance the organization, even if that just means helping the CEO avoid a mistake or two. While I’ve been writing this article on a Friday afternoon, my board chair and I have been texting ideas back and forth while he visits a museum two states away. “Seeing” that museum through his eyes is expanding my thinking about a new satellite location we are planning. We need board members to do a lot if our museums are going to achieve their full potential. When we move beyond the regular lists of board duties and look at what skills are required to perform those duties, we gain a renewed respect for all that our board members contribute. The best of them dream with us, help us fund that dream, and then work with us to form a new dream, helping our museums progress to the next level.

Karen S. Coltrane is president and CEO of EdVenture in Columbia, South Carolina.

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