By: Amy Schiffman
Principal and Co-Founder, Giving Tree Associates
It’s that time of year when most boards are closing the books on this fiscal year and planning for the next. Perhaps we’re spending time reviewing new programmatic, fundraising and operational strategies or putting the finishing touches on next year’s budget. But I’d like to make a case for summer being the right time to consider the health of your organization’s governance program. And if that sounds either too vague or glaringly obvious, let’s dig down a little deeper, unpack the possibilities, and prioritize. During this year’s summer board retreat, why not put the following on the agenda:
- Bylaws: Best practice says we should be reviewing our by-laws on an annual basis. But let’s face it, most nonprofit boards have neither the time nor the inclination to do so. So I’ll suggest that your board undertake a detailed review at least every 3 – 5 years. Why? Most of us have bylaws that are so old we don’t remember where they are or who wrote them. This critically important (but often ignored) document typically outlines the role of the board, its ability to make decisions, the board’s committee, leadership structure and hierarchy, and fiduciary responsibilities. It also defines policies around terms limits, annual meetings and the “changing of the guard.” As organizations grow and change, so does the role of the board, and thus the by-laws should reflect these changes and current practices. Often times the standing board committees outlined in the organization’s original bylaws do not make sense given today’s priorities. Each new board member should receive a copy of the by-laws (as well as a board manual or handbook, but that’s another blog) and be asked to confirm their review of the document.
- Term Limits: While your by-laws are on the table, take some time to review your organization’s term limits. Once, during a board retreat facilitation during which I mentioned the need to more closely adhere to the organization’s term limits, I was accused (quite loudly and unpleasantly by the way) of trying to “kick good people off the board for no good reason…” To that, I simply smiled and gave the following good reasons:
- Term limits prevent one person or faction on the board from influencing policy or practice for an unreasonable length of time.
- Term limits allow and encourage “fresh blood” to enter the board on a regular basis, thus bringing new ideas, money, and a diverse personal/professional network to the organization. This is one of the best leadership development tools we have at our disposal.
- Term limits ensure that your organization is able to regularly examine the make-up of the board and consider issues around skill gaps, demography, and diversity when seeking out new members.
- (And for those who are afraid that term limits limit our ability to fundraise from outgoing board members, think again. A good succession plan for out-going board members (and perhaps the development of an advisory or honorary board), especially one that includes a strong stewardship strategy for top donors, prevents this from happening.)
- Strategic Planning: Just as term limits need a thorough review every 3 – 5 years, so does your organization’s strategic plan. And most healthy nonprofits do more than just review their plan every so often, they completely re-write the plan every 3 – 5 years. This can seem like a daunting task, but one of the board’s key functions is to own strategic planning for the organization. Most boards partner with key staff members to accomplish this task, and many outsource the coordination and/or management of the plan to an outside firm if their internal teams are unable to drive the effort. The plan should serve as a roadmap to the board’s standing committees, who should devise their annual goals and work-plans according to the longer-term goals outlined in the plan. And if your organization has never developed a true strategic plan – it’s time! There are plenty of examples out there to get you started. This should be a non-negotiable — no plan means no clear roadmap for the future, which is both scary and irresponsible (and communicates a lack of vision to our stakeholders).
I’m hoping this is enough to get you started with the development of your summer/fall board retreat agenda! We hope Big Buzz will invite us back for more soon, but in the meantime, please feel free to reach out with questions and comments. Amy Schiffman is a Principal and Co-Founder of Giving Tree Associates in Chicago. To learn more about our governance, strategic planning and board retreat facilitation services, please visit us online or email us.