Effective Boards Lead Successful Organizations

By Brenda Huerta

There’s a saying by the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck: “The function makes the organ.” It refers to the ability of organisms to provide organs or capacities to their offspring that enable them to adapt and survive in the environment in which they will live. By this biological principle, some butterflies and insects look a lot like the flowers they inhabit, birds can imitate other animals’ sounds to protect themselves from predators, and giraffes’ necks grow so long that they can reach fruits and leaves on canopies. Taking Lamarck’s statement and applying it to organizational dynamics, we can understand what leadership means, how leaders provide what the organization needs in order to accomplish its mission and navigate the fields it serves, and how leaders can achieve a greater impact through their organization’s work.  

Throughout several of Boost’s recent projects, we realized that the boards of some nonprofits have opportunities to be more effective in influencing their organization’s performance and/or outcomes.  This conclusion inspired us to dig a little deeper on the role that boards play in an organization, and to try to understand better what causes dysfunctional boards and how they could be avoided. We developed a framework to help us deconstruct boards into smaller pieces and have a closer look. The framework divides boards into three elements: composition, structure, and practice.

Composition refers to the ideal mix of professional skills, resources, backgrounds, demographics, community connections, and other characteristics that a board requires to face the organization’s challenges as effectively as possible. A strong composition can be achieved through tools like a board composition matrix, which helps the organization ensure that the board comprises all the skillsets and perspectives that the organization needs. Having the right board members is a key component of a functional board. As simple as it sounds, there are many nonprofits that do not fully comprehend what the organization needs, and/or do not have processes that result in the selection of board members who are best for the organization.

The structure of a board is the accurate configuration regarding size, standing committees, ad hoc committees, task forces, councils, and length of membership terms. Committees allow for delegation so the whole board can stay focused on “big” issues. Some purposes of committees are to analyze and recommend specific courses of action, to monitor implementation, and to serve as an informal advisory resource to staff. If a board is structured properly, it will increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization.

The third element in this framework is practice. A board’s practices are the procedures through which a board carries out its operations –  administrative (minutes, agendas, etc.) and governance responsibilities (audits, work plans, etc.). Practices can be effective and useful, or time consuming and disorganized. They can provide guidance and context to the organization, or they can produce unnecessary and ineffective work. We believe that if the three elements of the framework function together, the result will be outstanding performance of the board, ensuring a productive, healthy, and accomplished organization.

Returning to Lamarck’s principle, the board would represent the organism that gives birth to its ‘offspring’, the organization. The organization’s day-to-day resource usage, culture, and other essential characteristics dictate what is needed from the board. But at the same time, the board is acting as a ‘parent’, guiding the organization to where it needs to go. The organism provides what the offspring needs but it is also responsible for guiding it and teaching it to use its tools and resources, and to know what it must do to survive and accomplish its mission.

So, using our framework, the board’s composition, structure, and practice would be the organs that must adapt to the environment that the organization is inhabiting and to accomplish its mission. If the organization needs a strong board chair to give direction and make decisions, the board needs to provide a strong board chair. If the organization needs a stronger financial committee to guide them through hard times, the board must create the committee and provide the knowledge and mentoring for the organization to overcome the obstacles it's facing.

The real challenge for boards and organizations is to be able to identify what is failing, where help is needed, or what could work better. Our research and thought process have led us to come up with questions for boards to find these sources of dysfunction, and identify what needs to change. In a never-ending process of adaptation to the environment, human factors, and social needs, with an outstanding performance produced by a strong composition, an accurate structure, and best practices, a board can guide its organization to achieve its mission and impact the population they’re serving. What is your organization’s board story?

Stone Soup: New Perspectives on Existing Resources

By Amanda Huminski

There’s an old fable about a small village that fell upon hard times. The harvest season wasn’t as fruitful as the villagers had hoped and the days were getting shorter and darker. Where once the villagers had shared in feasts and festivals, each family was now protective of their meager food stores as they prepared for the winter ahead. Two strangers passed through town one day, hoping for a bite to eat. At each door they knocked on, they were told that there wasn’t anything to share, that the town had nothing. The travelers sat in the town square, dismayed. It was then that one of the travelers saw a large stone on the ground – nothing special, just a cold, grey rock – and they were struck with an idea.

Brushing off the stone, the travelers hurried to one of the first doors they knocked on. “I told you,” the woman who answered the door said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have anything to share.” The travelers assured her they weren’t looking for food, they just wanted to borrow a large pot. “But you don’t have anything to cook,” she said. And they showed her the stone. “This is a magic stone,” said the travelers, “we just boil it for a few hours, and it makes the most delicious soup.” The woman was incredulous, of course, but curious. She found a pot to lend the travelers, and watched as they carried it away. “You and your family are welcome to join us when the soup is finished,” they said, “but you know, if you could also add just a few carrots to the pot, it would make the soup even better.” The woman, intrigued by the travelers and their magic stone, handed over a small basket of carrots.

And so the travelers visited every home in the village, inviting the hungry townspeople to their stone soup feast – along the way, gathering a few onions from one family, some potatoes from another. They built a fire in the town square, and added the stone to the bottom of the pot, followed by the vegetables, beans, and herbs they’d gathered from the townspeople.  In just a few hours, the stone had worked its magic, and the pot was filled with a hearty soup that the townspeople enjoyed together.

I was reminded of this story while working on a client project last year. Partnership with Children (PwC) is a New York based nonprofit delivering in-school social work services to low-income youth and families. They had recently expanded to 30+ sites and as the organization grew, there was a worry that service delivery may become inconsistent across sites. In our very first conversations with staff, both at the home office and from sites across the five boroughs of New York, most informed us that the absence of organization-wide policies had contributed the lack of alignment. This made it difficult to train staff, who might be placed at different sites year after year, difficult for managers to oversee the work of multiple sites that functioned differently, and difficult for the organization to consistently track impact data.

Over the course of a few months, we held numerous conversations with a group of staff representing multiple sites. What we found was not that PwC lacked processes altogether, but that processes manifested differently in different contexts. Where one site had excellent client intake processes, another perhaps lacked structure around intake, but had great oversight of goal-setting and follow-up. It wasn’t that the organization as a whole lacked processes, but that each site was so concerned with the urgency of their particular caseload that the implementation of processes (and improvisations on those policies) varied greatly across sites.

By bringing the right people in the room, and facilitating a conversation about what was working at what sites, and what needed improvement at others, we helped the organization standardize their processes and provide greater consistency in service delivery. As consultants, like the travelers in the story, we had no silver bullet, no magic stone, but with a bit of facilitation and conversation, we assisted in bringing together the resources already present in the organization for the greater benefit of everyone involved. As one employee from PwC described the process, “rather than simply pulling something off the shelf that was put together by others, PwC was able to tailor its program by leveraging existing strengths, by learning, questioning, and understanding why certain things were not working, and to develop our own program model based on best practices and evidence-based models.”

When organizations have disparate sites or programs that exist in silos, it’s often not a matter of creating solutions from the ground up, but providing a perspective that allows the organization to see how the resources they already possess can come together to form something better.

Excellent Leaders Create Excellent Impact

By Rachel Roth

Some people believe that leaders are born, while others think that individuals can learn to be leaders. But no matter how leadership skills are gained, there are always ways to improve. And that’s a topic that I’ve been interested in throughout my career, whether it be helping college students consult to nonprofit organizations, technology company employees serve customers, or community college presidents improve student success.  So during a recent engagement for the National College Access Network (NCAN), a membership organization that helps underrepresented middle and high school students aspire to, apply to, enter, and succeed in college, I sought to learn more.

At the beginning of the project, our Boost team conducted interviews with a variety of NCAN’s internal and external stakeholders.  Staff, Board, members, and peers spoke very highly of the Executive Director, Kim Cook, and the rest of the leadership team.  Not surprisingly, many of the same characteristics attributed to the leadership team by the interviewees also contributed to making our project successful.  While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it summarizes a number of the characteristics that I felt made Cook and the other senior leaders particularly effective to work with:

  • Fostered a transparent work environment by engaging all of the organization's staff in the project.  The executive team recognized that it was important for all of the NCAN’s staff to review our findings and recommendations and scheduled all-staff meetings in order for them to do so.  This allowed staff to offer feedback throughout the strategic planning process and helped them understand their individual role in implementing the plan.  
  • Exhibited a passion for the organization's mission and extremely knowledgeable about data, news, and opportunities facing the sector.  Not only did this allow them to testify effectively at Congressional hearings and attract and retain members, it also played an important role in guiding the strategic goals, objectives, and initiatives that NCAN should pursue.   
  • Possessed the financial acumen needed to make strong and informed decisions.  NCAN’s leaders had a strong understanding of the organization's finances, maintained a sophisticated budget, and integrated financial information into the strategic plan. 
  •  Listened to and embraced new ideas.  Throughout the strategic planning process, Boost conducted 53 interviews, received 200 responses from a survey of the organization's members and 388 responses from a survey of non-members.  NCAN’s leaders actively reviewed interview findings by asking questions, discussing implications, and exploring, with us, how this input should guide the organization's strategy.  They were willing to take risks, committed to develop new program offerings for underserved members, and contributed to an action plan to ensure follow-through.

These leadership qualities can be found at any level of an organization, from the straight-out-of-college intern to the seasoned Executive Director. What are some of the ways you see your leadership skills impacting your organization?

Adopt and Adapt: Setting up collaborative partnerships

By Arshad Merchant

There is an old saying that most of us know: “You can’t put a square peg into a round hole.” Well, what if you make adjustments to the peg and/or to the hole. Eventually, it’s got to fit, right? This is the challenge facing many non-profit organizations that provide a robust service in somebody else’s space. For example, many early stage organizations in the youth development and educational enhancement space see early success working in a particular school or partner setting or two… or three. And, with the success, there is a desire – by staff, by Board members, by funders – to replicate the impact in other settings.  Two of my current clients are in such a situation – one in 5 sites and one in 7 sites. Each has outstanding leadership; each has outstanding staff; each has enthusiastic funders. However, as we peel the onion, it appears that each has had to make necessary choices to “adapt” their model to their partner’s context. Sometimes it is a simple dimension such as size, but other times, it is about providing autonomy and deferring judgment to the school’s principal or the partner non-profit’s executive director. As a staff person at one of my clients said: “We have a plan going in for how our program will work. And then once they ask for a change, we make it – our plans don’t matter as much as their wishes.” The result is that a program of 5 to 7 sites may have up to 7 variations that don’t lend themselves to ready replication. These organizations – like many others – need to come to terms with what they want their partners to “adopt” and where they are willing to “adapt.” If everything about a program is adapted from site to site, then quality and process reliability are hard to realize. Training becomes more expensive, and execution success may be more dependent on the leaders of the partner rather than on the organization success. It may be harder to have success let alone prove it. On the other hand, if an organization says “take it or leave it,” many partners may simply reject the model. The partners themselves have been successful – or are trying to be successful – by their own unique styles and approaches. For my clients and others to simply expect that others will “adopt” the program wholesale may reduce opportunities for partner buy-in and championing, and may limit the potential impact of the program because it doesn’t fit the place. Achieving this takes careful understanding of the “peg” organization to know what is really important and where site-to-site or partner-to-partner variation would, at the minimum, continue to allow for success and, where possible, add to the success. Figuring this out takes time and effort, and a discovery or codification process can help an organization figure out what can work to keep model fidelity while creating space for success. They should be clear on what they want to ask of their partners up-front, so that partners can make adjustments where possible to make the collaboration work. With clarity, they will be able to meet with potential new partners and say: “Here’s what we want you to adopt because of x/y/z, and here’s where adaptation works really well.” Agreeing on this upfront will help drive success later. So, while nonprofits wanting to work in others’ spaces many need to shave some corners off of that square peg, it would be useful if partners make their holes a little bigger. That will bridge the adopt-vs-adapt gap.

Which Kind of Nonprofit Are You?

By Arshad Merchant

Recently, I facilitated a discussion at one of my current clients. It was the first of a series of conversations set up to develop the organization’s theory of change or, as I sometimes call this existential process, the “Why are we here?” project. One of the staff members asked a question that I have heard regularly from many of my clients: “How essential are we to our partners?”

When this question is asked, I sometimes think of coffee, and specifically the rationale for drinking coffee in the afternoon. For me, and I imagine for many people, morning coffee has become a must. It’s essential in driving my productivity, especially after the long-hours of consulting, community work and family responsibilities. While I canchoose the type of morning coffee I have, I frequently select the option that is easiest to access. While it still has to be hot and somewhat fresh, my priority is its proximity and convenience.  If your gas tank is empty, you buy at the next gas station, right?

On the other hand, if I am going to have coffee in the afternoon, I’m going to enjoy this one… for me, Starbucks at the minimum; Peet’s if possible. And, yesterday, I came across what may become my new favorite – essentially a rose mochaccino. This afternoon coffee is not essential to me, but it is an indulgence that I sometimes want.

So, as clients grapple with theory of change questions, I sometimes ask: Are you morning coffee or afternoon coffee? If you are a “morning coffee” program – for example, an afterschool program that partners with schools – you likely need to sell yourself to partners on convenience and ease of service. You are already important to them and funding may be less of an issue, but there are probably plenty of options.  This means you need to be the best at seamlessly delivering what the partner needs and making it as headache free as possible. On the other hand, if you are afternoon coffee, you likely have to prove your value, and sell yourself on how you are different, how you are special; how you are the rose-syrup that I can’t get at the coffee shop down the block.

And, as my client considers the question – “How essential are we to our partners?” – I will be sure to ask their partners about how they see my client’s value proposition. If it turns out that my client offers an essential service, then we will work on the service’s convenience, so it can become an easy-to-do-business-with option.  If the partners see them as important and helpful – but not essential – we will work with our clients on being really clear on how they are differentiated, how they should be wanted even if they are not needed.

After all, both morning and afternoon coffee are valued – just for different reasons.