At Tides, we see the important contributions that a highly functioning board can have in the growth and stability of a nonprofit. Likewise, we also have seen the problems that arise when there are misunderstandings, misaligned expectations, and a lack of investment into board purpose and health. On June 13th, we were pleased to present the webinar “Great Nonprofit Boards and How to Build Yours” to both live and remote audiences.
A compelling topic for staff and board members alike, we demystified some of the common challenges faced by nonprofits around building and maintaining their boards. Drawing upon Tides staff expertise as well as an expert panel of directors and board members, we identified, discussed, and offered solutions for some of the key areas that most need clarity and extra attention: board purpose, board ingredients, recruitment, effective board engagement, and assessment.
Thank you to our panelists:
- Carmela Castellano-Garcia, President & CEO, California Primary Care Association
- Melissa Jones, Executive Director, Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative
- Jeff Reynoso, Executive Director, Latino Coalition for a Healthy California
- Michael Stacey, Director, Medical Services, Solano County Public Health
- Andrea Aguilar, Strategic Partnerships Advisor, Tides (moderator)
- Joel Bashevkin, Director of Social Ventures, Tides (moderator)
Below, you can watch a recording of the webinar and read the transcript, including answers to some of the questions submitted by our wonderful online audience. Please contact us if you have any further questions about how to improve your board!
Welcome to the webinar “Great Nonprofit Boards and How to Build Yours.” We appreciate you joining us virtually, and we wanted to let you know that we also have a live audience here with us in the Tides Presidio San Francisco meeting room. So thank you all for joining us.
All of you are here because you care about making a difference personally, and organizationally. And the key part of that is a highly functioning and impactful board for your organizations. We know we can make each of our boards, and board experience, better than it is.
My name is Joel Bashevkin, I’m the director of social ventures here at Tides. At Tides, we work closely with hundreds of organizations, utilizing many variations of board leadership, composition, structure, and purpose. Through that work, we’ve been able to distinguish the okay ones from the exceptional. We’re here to share with you ways to make yours exceptional.
I’ll share a quick story. In a previous role, I was part of a team that was hired to help China develop its nonprofit sector, we surveyed nonprofits throughout the U.S. to say, “If you had an opportunity to do it all over again, and redesign the American model for nonprofits, what would you change, what would you retain?”
Lo and behold, the biggest dysfunctional part that was called out by executive directors of nonprofits around the U.S. was their boards. They would’ve preferred to do away with them, which really conflicted for me because I can see, and I’ve seen, the incredible value, power, and the invaluable role that boards and their members have in critical organizational success.
Let me hand it off to my co-moderator, Andrea.
Hi everyone, my name is Andrea Aguilar, and I am the strategic partnerships advisor here at Tides. My work here is primarily working with prospective clients who are interested in partnering with Tides, either under the fiscal sponsorship model or opening up a fund, whether that’s a donor advise fund, a collective action fund, or a single entity fund.
I’d love for us to go ahead and now introduce our panelists. Each panelist here will give their name, their title, the name of the organization that they are with, and a brief mission of their organization, as well as answer the question “What was your first experience with a 501c3 nonprofit board, or an advisory board, and what was the highlight?”
I’ll go ahead and kick it off to Carmela.
Good afternoon, pleasure to be here, Carmela Castellano-Garcia. I’m president and CEO of the California Primary Care Association, which represents community health centers in the state of California. Our mission is to serve as a united voice for community health centers in Sacramento. But, today I’m wearing the hat as a board member of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, which is an organization I founded 27 years ago or so, and I’ll let Jeffrey talk about its mission.
My first experience with a 501c3 nonprofit board, I was thinking about that, I think I was about 19 years old and I joined the board of the San Jose GI Forum Scholarship Foundation, which I was involved in giving scholarships contributed through local Silicon Valley companies to young Latinos pursuing their higher education in San Jose. But at the time, I really knew nothing about board governance or anything like that, but it was a great experience as a young person to be involved in a board.
Thanks Carmela. My name is Jeffrey Reynoso, director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. We are an organization that was founded about 27 years ago, and our mission is to advance and protect Latinx health through policy advocacy out here in California. So, we represent the health interests of our largest racial/ethnic population in the state of California, representing 40% of 40 million Californians.
So, my first experience with a nonprofit board, it wasn’t necessarily a 501c3 structure, it was more of a national advisory board. I was elected editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policies, so I reported to a board of leaders across policy, business, and the nonprofit sectors. I also was super young, I was a graduate student, didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, or really what a board did. And so, I learned a lot that prepared me with my current role, just through trial and error, which probably is how a lot people get exposed to boards. And so, that’s why I’m really pleased to see Tides really paying attention to this particular topic.
Hi, good morning. I’m Melissa Jones, I’m the executive director of BARHII. BARHII is the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative. We are the coalition of the Bay Area’s public health departments, founded to focus explicitly and exclusively in issues of health equity in the Bay Area, so, the differences we see in life expectancy, and birth outcomes, and the quality of life, but varied by race and by income.
My first experience with a nonprofit board I guess was when I was in a staff, my first official formal staff person in a nonprofit job. I managed the evaluation for Summerbridge National, and I did the presentation to the board of what the evaluation was saying. And it was an incredibly rich experience in terms of the conversation we had about what that data tells us about what we’re doing really well, and what it tells us about where our program should go next. That was a great experience. It also was a time they were going through a name change, so it’s also fascinating to see the kinds of things boards think about in branding.
And my name is Michael Stacey, I’m the deputy director for Health and Social Services in Solano County. In that role, I oversee the medical services, which includes the federally qualified health centers that are run by the county there. I am here today, though, in my role as a member of the BARHII board. I’m co-chair of that board, and have been a member, an active member of BARHII, for about the last 10 years. In that role, really, as Melissa talked about, our mission in that organization is really elimination of health inequities in the Bay Area. And so, that’s kind of the role, and that board and our mission there.
My first work on a board or reporting to a board actually was in my role in Solano County, and that is a federally qualified health center board. Every FQHC has a board that they’re required to have by regulation, and I’ve been working with that board also for the past 11 or 12 years.
Great, thank you. So now you know why we’ve got some amazing people here in this room, in this space, to talk.
I’ll describe how we’re going to tackle this session. As I mentioned, in our work, we’ve seen a tremendous number of misconceptions, lost opportunities, and alignment challenges, in the space of board, board member recruitment, governance, the way it’s structured, its purpose, and its function, especially around board meetings, and self assessment.
So we’re going to move through each of these four topics, alternating. Andrea and I will get some context, and then we’ll turn to our panel for their expert opinions, and then we’ll move on. At the end we will have time for Q&A, time permitting, and so what we would ask you to please do is please submit through the chat to Q&A, and we will be able to bring those in. If we can’t speak to all of them, we will certainly have the wrap up of this recording, a number of resources that we’ll be mentioning, as well as answers to some of those questions.
I also wanted to mention that in the room we also have Tides’ legal counsel and HR expertise – we’ve got a lot of capabilities here among us, should the questions stray in that area.
Let’s start with topic one, board importance, or you might more generally describe it as board purpose. My sort of bubble over this is, one of the biggest differences… we’re not looking at board as some kind of extension of staff. But they’re really the mission stewards of the organization. And their responsibility is to really focus on the needs of the here and now of the mission, and the role of the community organization, and serving the community. But additionally, they have to be on the lookout, around the bend, for what’s coming, because they’re stewards of tomorrow’s organizations as well.
So, legally, nonprofits are public corporations, and the way that the nonprofit sector, the 501c3 is determined in our situation, is that the board members are the community’s representatives. They are there to represent the needs of the community, the stakeholders, society in general, and the service population, or those organizations in specific.
There is, and it’s not really well worded, we need a branding change for this, but there’s the three duties that are beholden to the board, caretaker responsibilities. Duty of care is to protect the assets, which include the people of the organization, the finances, the reputation of the organization. There’s the duty of loyalty, which I say in a way that would ring harshly in some contexts, but it’s really to commit individually and collectively to make the best decisions, even the tough ones, about the organization. And obedience, which is predominantly meaning “Obey the regs, obey your bylaws, obey your mission, stay focused there.” And ultimately, you’re being the best resource for the organization, and you’re evolving with it.
There are ages and stages to so many new organizations, and it’s going to be much more hands on. But the failing of being able to do “both, and” is one of the things that brings new organizations down faster than other areas, because they’re not able to stay focused on the larger picture because they’re embedded in the day to day.
Now, with Tides we have a number of models, as Andrea mentioned, and there are many organizations that really choose to stay hyper focused on the programmatic work. And so we have in our fiscal sponsorship, a shared governance model, so that meeting legal compliance and other regulations are being carried by the collective entity, so that the boards can stay really focused. But ultimately it’s all relevant for what we’re talking about.
So, let me turn first to Jeff and Melissa. Why is a board important to you and your organization, and what value has the board brought you?
BARHII started as several of the public health directors in the region taking a look at the data and the differences they were seeing in health, and having a set of conversations. So it started as a dialogue that grew to the point where they knew they wanted to do some things where they needed staff, and then grew from there. So it started small and grew organically, so it really did go through the stages that Joel is talking about. By the time that I came in, BARHII was 15 years old. It really was in a different stage of its development. And when that happens, BARHII is kind of framework that people have seen all over the place, it’s a framework that’s been adopted by the California Department of Public Health, to guide health equity work across the state.
But to figure out which pieces of that framework should be operationalized how, at this point for the organization, how can we make the most impact, how do we think about our staffing structure, we’ve been growing over the last four years, how do we think about our growth patterns, and then what our reserves are so that we’re growing really responsibly, the board has been really helpful in all of that. So coming into a 15 year old organization, Michael, the other co-chair for BARHII, really helped me understand the things that aren’t written down when you start really naturally. When you start with just a series of conversations, there’s all these ways that you’re used to interacting with each other that aren’t actually written down but are the culture of your organization. And so, they helped me as the new executive director come in and understand what was most important to people, and to say “At this stage, if we want to do something new, some things will change.” And so, what do we not want to lose in the change, what’s precious, and what’s expendable, what can change, what can’t, really helping navigate those possibilities, the board was really helpful.
Yeah, and I think the way that I would answer this question… So there’s the bigger picture high level answer to this, which is, when we’re searching for funding, particularly with our philanthropic partners, the first question they want to know is “Who is the executive director?” And they look at my bio, or whoever the executive director is, and secondly they look at your board of directors. And that is that starting point for a conversation, it gives them the green light to go ahead and have a conversation with you. So that’s a high level.
I think at a deeper level, why it’s important for the Latino Coalition, I look at it in terms of function and topic. So functionally, what are the functions of running an organization? And you want that expertise, you want board members that have a strong financial background, and can provide that financial management support, budgeting, and support me as an executive director. I want someone on my board that has run large scale programs and has been able to scale up pilot programs from a small locality to a region, state, and I want that expertise. On the policy side, I want board members that work in the policy field and have that expertise. So, that’s on the function side.
On the topics, or the topical areas, we have a strategic plan and a strategic vision for the organization. For us, it’s healthcare for all, building healthy communities, and health is a fundamental human right. So, we want all of our board members to be known as experts in the field in all of these three issue areas. And that again provides me the confidence that when I speak for my board, that those interests are represented on my board. And I would say as an organization, I speak with a greater cache, if you will, with our funders, and our broader stakeholders, within the policy advocacy space.
One of the things that I felt, first as the executive director of the Latino Coalition many years ago, and then as a board member, one thing that’s been important for this particular organization in terms of the board, is through multiple transitions over many years, that’s just how it’s turned out for the Latino Coalition, we’ve had multiple EDs since I had left a couple decades ago, that the board has been a source of consistency and commitment and strength for the organization. It wouldn’t still exist if we didn’t have the kind of committed advisory board, it’s not the 501c3 nonprofit, it’s the other type we’re talking about here, the non [inaudible 00:17:45] advisory board. But I think the depth of the commitment that the individuals have had historically has just been so key to keeping our organization in place over these last several decades, so I think it’s been just fundamental, the board, for the existence of the organization.
I think somewhat unique to BARHII has really been the fact that the board members are made up of representatives from the different health departments. And the importance of that, as Melissa sort of described, the whole genesis of BARHII, how it came to be, one of the things that’s important about that is the health departments really are limited to the things that they can do, mostly within their jurisdiction, their county, boundaries. But by having representatives from all these health departments, meeting together as board members of BARHII, it’s been a great opportunity for us to work, for this port and BARHII to work together, taking into consideration all the uniqueness of those different jurisdictions.
There’s different politics, there’s somewhat different demographics in those different counties across the Bay Area. But the things that overlap are transportation systems, media markets, and all of that. So by having the opportunity for these representatives from these different health departments to be in the same room, to collaborate and create strategies to regionally address health inequities, has been invaluable. And having a place, such as BARHII, and an executive director, providing leadership to give us some structure and direction and ability to move forward on those strategies, has been really important.
I’d love for us to now go on to our second topic, which is around board member ingredients. As we know, from hearing all of our panelists, how important boards are to the existence and success of nonprofit organizations, I’d love for us to now discuss the individuals that make those boards. And we’ve added a little playful touch to it and called it ingredients.
So what are board member ingredients? We have broken it out to what we think are required, and what are nice to have. Now, we could be in an all day seminar to discuss what a perfect board member looks like. But the reality is that every board is different, and has different needs, and has different priorities. And often or not, boards do have a difficulty in defining what exactly they want in a board member, which of course will then dictate how they recruit their board members. But we do believe that these are a few ingredients that would be a great start for when you are creating your board, or when you are recruiting for your board.
I’d like for us to discuss a little bit of the “nice to have”, which is around financial commitment, volunteering outside of the board role, and ambassadorship. Now, with financial commitment, that can vary with every organization and with every board. It honestly depends on their fundraising strategy. And with volunteering outside of their board role, board members are already currently volunteering their time as a board member, so sometimes it could be difficult to volunteer more of their time in a different capacity, as well as with ambassadorship. It’s not a legal requirement for all board members to be an ambassador of the organization because there is a learning curve, and there is a training, and there is an orientation. But it is something nice for your board members to have.
So, I’d love to now go ahead and ask our panelists, specifically our board members here, Carmela and Michael, “Considering the list above, would you change anything or add to it?”
I looked at the list, I think it’s a good list. And I think that “nice to have” financial commitment is the only one that maybe needs to just move over to the other side, because I think that’s been so important. I’ve learned from every board I’m on, it’s always an issue, either how we do it, or what the requirements should be. And I think it’s important that boards are talking about this and thinking about this, or that situation where you have the commitment but people still don’t mean it, the whole thing. It’s still so important to have that expectation for the nonprofit board. So I think it goes a little beyond “nice to have.” And the other piece on the finance that I add kinda going with it, it goes with the integrity and all that, but a real commitment to the financial wellbeing of the nonprofit. We can’t just be there for the mission. So I kind of see that as a requirement. I’m not saying every board member has to be on the finance committee, but I think every board member has to be committed to that broader understanding of the commitment to the resources it takes to sustain and grow the organization. So it’s the financial part that I think could be a little more defined under required actually, I think it would strengthen it.
Yeah. And so, I think in this regard, I’ll speak a little bit to both what in BARHII we would really need as a board member, what we look for, and then also on the FQHC side, the federally qualified health center side, that may be a little bit more traditional in terms of what we look for, for board members.
On the BARHII side, I think this list is really important, but specifically in BARHII we also need someone that’s connected to the organizations of the health departments and has decision making authority within the context of making decisions with public health decisions. Or at least an ability to influence those decisions within leadership of those local governments and those board of supervisors. So, I think that’s kind of important on the side of… And it becomes a very political thing, so being able to sort of understand the politics of your jurisdiction, understand the needs within the Bay Area and how to balance the politics and move policy agendas forward, that can be feasibly done with understanding the politics of the different jurisdictions. I think that’s important for our board members.
To add to the general list in the other boards, like federally qualified health centers, I think it’s really great to have people with some outside expertise that brings into these health centers. Because oftentimes over half of the board, at least 51% of the board members on an FQHC board are actually patients in your clinics, so they bring something to that board, but it’s not usually expertise and how to run a health center. And so having some members also that have that expertise is really important. And a willingness of all board members to get really involved in some of the work that’s being done, get to know the members of your organization and participate in committees or work groups that are happening within the organization. That brings a connection of the organization to the board members and really amplifies the ability for those board members to really impact how the organization’s functioning.
Great, thank you. And I’ve love to ask now, Jeff and Melissa, from a director lens, what do you expect from your advisory board and what don’t you expect from them?
Great. I’ll start with the second one, what I don’t expect. I think for ED, project director, I don’t expect the day to day engagement in terms of…operationalizing the strategic vision. So I, as executive director, I lead the strategic planning process in partnership with the board. It’s an in depth process that requires a lot of data collection, analyzing the data, reporting back to the board, a lot of back and forth iterations, to get us to a place where we know what our three or five year plan is going to be. And so, the day to day management of how we’re going to achieve that vision, I as the executive director would like the confidence that I can go ahead and run with that strategic plan. And then we can have our check-ins at our meetings, where I report back on the status of where we’re at with the strategic plan. So, that’s kind of what I wouldn’t expect from a board member.
I think what I would expect, and it cuts across a lot of these ingredients, is that engagement piece. It’s so critical, and I think for every particular board member it’s going to different, and it kind of feels like I have a different relationship with every board member, every board member provides something different to the table, and I need something different from them. So it takes time to cultivate that relationship and understand why a particular board member is really interested, beyond the mission. More specifically why are they interested in being a part of your board, and what can I do to engage them, and that’s what I have to think about. Whether it’s the creation of a new committee or whether it’s engagement in terms of knowing when to bring them on board. Particular board members area really good for me to bring to new funder meetings, and having them be a part of that conversation. Other board members really like engaging with our policy events, and I invite them to those types of events. So really that board engagement and that understanding that I’m here to engage with you but I also expect that in return, that two way bidirectional relationship.
It’s not often on panels where I can say, “Yes I agree with everything I’ve heard.”
I think for us, for health inequities, what we’re up against is really big. We know that the living conditions around us have huge impacts on health, so for us here in the Bay Area, housing affordability, issues of poverty. The level of power, and decision making, and long term fortuitousness to stick through things, is what’s going to make a difference on those issues.
And so for the board members we are really looking for people who can take us from… How do we get to a strategy that’s getting us to much bigger different solutions and then how do we implement it. And so like Michael said, we’re looking for people who have a really strategic eye, and meaning, looking for people who have a strategic eye on particular issues, but can understand how issues tie together. So for us, housing affordability, poverty, access to healthcare services, a range of things. And then we’re looking for somebody who can help us think then about the decision making that can be done inside local public agencies to make change, and then the decision making that needs to happen at a policy level. And so there’s different kinds of relationships that we need from different board members to do that.
And then the last piece is, is these are really long term issues that we want to have some strong… Like, when there’s a moment, and we are in a moment, right? When there’s a moment, we want to be able to act really strongly now, and we know it’s going to take some real long term work to have whatever kind of policy that gets passed be implemented in a way that matters for communities. And so I think really this conversation about the financial strength of the organization and the ability for staff to be there and know we really look out for how we manage this organization, we have the resources in place that you know your job is going to be here and you’re going to be paid, and for us to know that cycles go up and down in foundations and in the economy and that we set ourselves up to be ready for a cycle to go up and down and still be strong. So those are the kinds of things we look for.
Great. So, segueing beautifully from that to well, where do you find these wonderful people?
What’s been really fascinating over the past decade is the dramatic shifts that have occurred in what the potential board members and the board purpose has taken. Just as demographic shifts have occurred. Really, an awareness to shift away from the one body mentality, the approach of just, someone warm just walks in, let’s put them on the board. A shift from a friends and family approach to truly embracing diversity and all of its power and value. A shift from an open ended vague no term limits, just please join us, to term limited and focused roles. A shift from gray to next generation engagement. And a shift from checkbook, address book only to a larger, as you can see from the previous section, a larger consideration for bringing more of themselves to the table.
So how do you find and bring on these? Well there’s some cultivation that needs to be done first. Unless you’re a brand new organization, you have existing board members. So if you are the staff person, or a lone board member, be careful. You’ve got to lay the groundwork with your current board. So if there are not term limits, introduce them, because you’re going to need to cycle people through and prepare for what you’re pitching the next cohort.
Set clear board roles and responsibilities, especially for those who are currently on the board, so they know why they’re there. And then you want to audit for the future. Where is your organization headed, what kind of skills and talents do you need to get there? And we’ll provide you with links to various board recruitment matrices, where you can fill out all the composite considerations, so you can evaluate your current board, and then see what kinds of gaps you’re trying to fill for. And this is a wonderful time to really step back and think about, what are your next set of challenges and wall that you’re going to have to climb over. So then you want to design roles, and I think one of the interesting things that’s happened that I was able to participate in over the last 10 years is shifting from an open seat, just to show up, to one where you have a specific portfolio of responsibilities, and as a steward of the organization, we’re not talking about micromanagement.
A PR person could come on as a steward of the organizations reputation. A treasurer or finance trained person could come on as the steward of fiscal health. A legally backed person can come on and help really take care and protect the organization’s risk. And then HR people, because 80% of all organizations are staff, at least from a budget perspective, and you need people who understand how to best do that.
Once you’ve been able to design those roles, you can say “In the next 3-6 years, the length of your term, this is what we would love for you to help us achieve.” And then you can put that into a compelling vision and go market it. Use HR recruiting best practices.
And I would recommend, never bring on one board member alone, you want to bring on cohorts. And for many, this may be their first board experience, so you want to assign a mentor. The highest turnover are those who just arrived and found themselves in an isolated role.
And again, speaking to Tides shared governance model, if you are working with a fiscal sponsor or some other means, you can focus on people who are going to be more interested in the programmatic work, knowing that someone else is watching the compliant shop.
So where do you find these great candidates? So about eight years ago I started work with LinkedIn and we launched BoardConnect. You can use the advanced searches, there are now, I checked this morning, 6.5 million LinkedIn users who have checked the box, they’re interested in joining a nonprofit board, in their nonprofit interests section of their profile. You can search for that, and the specific skills, competences, communities, that you’re looking for. And hey, they put their hand up, so introduce yourself over LinkedIn. Board Match, our friends at the volunteer center here in San Francisco have created an amazing fair model, which is now rolling out in cities across the country, where you have your booth, and instead of selling your wares, you’re recruiting board members, and you’re engaging with members. One of my colleagues has a program called BoardLead, who I just found out is welcoming all of you to apply. They work with corporate next generation staff, they do a lot of training to help them understand their roles, and then bring them on. And lastly, I think the FQHC is a great example. Go to your community, your clients, have them represent you.
Let me go first to Jeff, where do you find your board members, and what makes them successful?
So this is really relevant because I’m going through this right now, this summer. I think, and this is an area, to be perfectly frank, that I think we need the most development in as an organization. I think the outcome has always been really incredible. I think the process to get to that, we’re still trying to figure it out. I think what’s worked for us, is just really starting it out with an assessment of who is on the board. And so we start out with a demographic survey to the board members. So we talked about not only individual demographics, we want representation, variety of gender, race, all of the various demographic variables, but then also some of these I alluded to earlier for our organization to really [inaudible 00:37:02] to have representation across regions of California, represented various communities. We do a lot of work in LA County, Inland Empire, the Central Valley, so we really want representatives from the board from all of these regions. And then also, all of the various strategic issue areas that are critical to our organization, we want all of those represented.
So we put all of this data together into a matrix, and that’s the starting point. I think we have taken a friends and family approach to a certain extent, and we are trying to get away from that. And I think a good example of that, when I first came on board, during my transition in those first three months, we had several board members transition out, and we brought in our cohort of board members that were part of our next gen recruits. So these are board members that weren’t necessarily within the circles of our current board members, of that friends and colleagues of the current cohort.
And so, it, I think, has been really transformational to our board to have new emerging leaders in the healthcare, public health space in California, be represented on our board. And what we did with bringing on this new cohort is not only doing that orientation that we traditionally do, Tides provided that support for our project, but going beyond that and having a mentorship buddy model on the board, was particularly effective for us to provide that initial engagement, as they got familiarized with the organization in that first year that they served on the board.
Yeah, I think that I’ve only been on boards where we work through networks. And not necessarily friends and family, not that the networks are so tight, but that people have shared with each other what their interests and priorities are, and we found people that way. At BARHII in particular, we’re trying to find that mix of decision makers inside the public system and real technical experts. And so we have a board model that is an appointee from each of the counties, as well as the coachers for each of our committees, who tend to be more experts in a particular policy or program areal. And so they sit on the board together and have discussions together around strategy.
We happen to be an organization where we try to make room for leadership and new ideas, and so anybody, BARHII is an open door policy, and anybody who has an idea is something that they think is really something that could be valuable for the region and can bring it in for a program staff, and we talk about it and see where there might be other counties that have a similar interest. And so through that, we meet a lot of people over time who are interested in these same issue areas, and we start to learn where their strengths are and how they might contribute, and so that we have people that sort of flow into committee chair positions through that process, and then those committee chairs into our board.
And so, I wanted to pivot to our board members and ask the tough question. When is it time to say goodbye to a board member? How do you know it and how do you go about it.
We haven’t had to do this a whole lot, but I would say it’s really… As we talked about, what we need from board members, there are times when whatever’s happening in that board member’s life, or in their professional work, they are no longer able to attend and be regularly active participants of a board. And once somebody is not able to really be committed, get to board meetings, and we experience this honestly more on the FQHC board, occasionally somebody just drops off and they’re no longer participating, they’re no longer… And at that point, they’re not effective and then you have trouble even making decisions, because you have difficulty getting a quorum and actually having the ability to vote on things.
Anytime someone changes and they… We always screen for conflict of interest whenever somebody comes onto a board, but those things can arise while the board member is actually active. So if a conflict of interest arises, that would be a time to also say goodbye to a board member. If it’s revealed that they’re just not really, they don’t really buy into the mission of the organization. I’ve never had that happen. But if that were to happen, and I think about BARHII particularly, if something happened where they no longer really were aligned with our mission, or were doing things that were no longer the mission, that in my mind would be… If they didn’t naturally leave on their own, which I think they probably would, we would probably have to have a conversation and have them leave the board.
And just a point on that, a conflict of interest, which is a large burden and responsibility that nonprofits follow now, is that there is a way, maybe not in the situation you’re describing, a way to exempt yourself and to separate yourself from a specific decision for which you have a conflict. But you have to be careful, you have to document it, etc. But just to put a plug in, it’s not a deal breaker if it’s an incident.
Carmela, have you had a exiting board experience?
Yeah, I wanted to speak to when it’s time to say goodbye, because someone has been there for too long, but they can’t keep the commitment. And there’s also been there too long, and are too committed and involved and engaged. I’ve kind of felt that on the can’t keep the commitment. I was personally involved in a board I very much cared about that I was so committed to for a young woman. And it was at that point when I switched jobs, where I couldn’t make the meetings and I knew, but I had the best board experience ever, I couldn’t let it go. So even though I couldn’t make the Saturday meetings once a month, I didn’t deal with that situation, and I just kept staying on the board. And then my husband would ask me, well why don’t you step down, and it’s like, well I wasn’t going to do that. It was so interesting, and it went on for a while. And then I tried to go to the annual event and stay my connection, but I was one of those board members, taking up a space, and knowing it.
But it was great when, what I wanted to mention about it was, the way the ED handled it, when she called me. And she was like a friend, after so many years on the board. But we had that dreaded call, where she had to tell me that I haven’t been able to participate, and it was a very nice way of getting me to acknowledge that I needed to step down from the board. But I think what I appreciated about it is she was very respectful in her approach, because she knew my heart was there, and somehow she honored that in the communication to me, where we kind of together agreed that I should step down from the board. And it didn’t feel like I had gotten called out, somehow it just felt like this gracious phone call that acknowledged everything and didn’t make me feel guilty about what I had done.
I just say that when you finally need to call that question, it needs to be handled really well, because… Someone like me, I really was committed and I still have other ways now that I’m involved with that organization and stay committed. So those things matter, and we’ve dealt with it in the Latino Coalition to where our board members that have been around for a really long time, and I’m one of them, who have a hard time getting out of the organization.
So that, I think is a challenge, and what Jeffrey has done and we’ve done as the board, that I think has really helped, is bring in that next generation. So when you find where the old guard just isn’t willing to step down or hasn’t, some of us have, some of us haven’t, bringing in that new blood is a really helpful way, because actually, for some of us, that’s what allows us to step down, when we see that there’s other board members being cultivated, that’s not just part of this old guard. It’s that new guard that’s going to come in and be cultivated to care just as much as we do.
So now that we’re actually bringing in these kind of folks that Jeffrey just mentioned, like for the first time in 27 years, probably about 6 months ago, it’s like “Oh, maybe I could get off the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California board.” I mean, that thought has never really crossed my mind in all these years because I’ve just been so committed to needing to be there and be one of those board members that stays committed. Well, we’ve got some other people now that we’re cultivating, that are ready. So, I’m pretty excited about that.
So, that’s one way the ED can handle on it, when the founders don’t seem to want to go anywhere, help bring in the new blood that can help move them along, actually. I think that’s been part of moving along.
Thank you. And on to our final topic, around effective boards. We’ve been able to identify what we feel will make boards successful, and help them grow and thrive, and keep them dynamic as well.
I’m actually on the board of an arts grassroots nonprofit organization, and one of the things that I actually try to do is, separate from my role as a board member, I actually make it a point to go to their events. Not just their fundraising events, but their programmatic events, as well as make time to have that one on one face time with their staff, so that I can see their work as well as see the community that they are serving. So, that’s one of the topics that we have here, which is the connection to the organization’s work.
We’ve also been able to highlight how important productive meetings should be, so having a clear agenda, having items that require action, as well as having time to be strategic. And that space can also be used for retreats. Retreats can be really useful in grounding the board members to the organization’s mission and vision, as well as thinking about the future, as well as applying all of the learnings that they’ve experienced from that year, as well.
And we’ve also identified board assessment and members that self evaluate. It’s important to be able to gauge, as a board member, whether you’ve been successful or not, as well as where you’ve fallen short on things. And as a project director, you also want to be able to identify where your members should be engaged in more, as well as make sure that they are still in alignment with the organization’s mission and vision, because they will be ambassadors of your organization.
So, I would love to go ahead and pivot to our panelists, here, to the project directors, to both Jeff and Melissa. What learnings do you have in place for your board so that they fully understand your project’s mission, activities, and the community that you guys are serving, as well as how do you support and strengthen their leadership in your organization?
So each of our board members are involved in one project, at least, that’s operating at BARHII. And so they’re not generally involved in the day to day operations of things that we would think of as staff, but they provide key insights, advice, we bat ideas back and forth, they help implement something in their particular jurisdiction. So, everybody knows one piece, and so our trick at the board, is to make sure everybody knows the whole. So we do a lot of 10, 20 minute segments of updates on what’s happening in a particular project, and how it ties to the whole. And then, right now, we’re in the midst of strategic planning that will set a framework for how we’ll go next. We’re doing more of a strategic framework dialogue, so we do quite a bit of that.
Right. I think what I’ll add to that, I’ll second that board member engagement with the programmatic work, and with us as well, with our policy work. Providing not only the space for staff to present their projects to the board, so I definitely allow them, our project managers at my organization, to get to know the board. I think all of my board members know all of my staff, or meet my staff at some point throughout their tenure on my board.
Also just identifying those events, whether last year we had our Latinx Health Equity Awards throughout the state, and identifying board members to attend all those various events that we have throughout the state. It gives them an opportunity to just see the fruition of all the work that we do at the organization. And I think that, at least from the feedback I got individually from my board, it gives them that sense of motivation, and also a return to the mission of this, why I volunteer my time and my energy on this board.
I think too, finding those areas of opportunity, again going back to engagement. The way that we’ve set up our board, while we have an advisory board, we do have an executive committee, that we meet monthly, so that provides a more engaged number of board members, so it’s five at the moment. So we kind of take a subset of the board that’s fully engaged throughout the year, and then for the rest of the board members, developing those committees that I need at a particular moment in time, for me it’s development and our policy committee. So that provides an opportunity again for more board members to engage.
And now, to Carmela and Michael, what makes a board meeting productive and engaging?
Well, I want to wear my CPCA hat for a moment to answer that, because I just went through a whole process after running an organization for 22 years, and board meetings quarterly, really realizing to listen more carefully when the board members are saying that the board meetings aren’t as productive and working for them. And even though I knew this, I would’ve [inaudible 00:50:59] that the board packet’s too long, we need to have more discussions. But it wasn’t until we had a retreat, we sat the board members down, and asked them what changes they wanted to make to the board meeting. And then, the changes actually ended up being, well instead of seven items in a committee can we just have two, and have in depth discussion? Just some changes that we made that weren’t revolutionary, but it felt like a revolution to them.
So, which was incredible, because now they feel that board meetings are more productive and engaging. So, I think what I would say about that is that it needs to come from the board. Because as the CEO, for me the last 20 years, those board meetings have been very productive and engaging. But it wasn’t for them. And I didn’t hear that clearly enough soon enough. And now, nothing’s changed that much and they feel much better. Hey, I could’ve done that sooner. Listen to your board.
I just think oftentimes when we’re sitting sort in an executive team, or an executive group, we think about this stuff or we strategize about this stuff all the time. And your board members also have jobs, they have lives, and they are not, they don’t have the luxury of being able to think about these things constantly and strategize. And so when they come to these meetings, you really want… I think Melissa’s actually really masterful at this because when we have a meeting, I feel like I get up to speed very quickly, and I engage probably more as a chair than some of the other board members. But I still need that, honestly, to get up to speed about where we are in BARHII and what we’re doing, and then that allows us to actually have meaningful conversations and then make decisions.
Because we want to go and be able to make a decision at these board meetings, and if we don’t get brought up to speed and understand where we are, we’re probably going to defer that boat. We’re just going to say “We need some time to think about this and we’re going to put it off,” and then you’re putting it off a month, and then another two months, and then you’re really delaying the chance that you have to have an impact in your communities by actually implementing policy and getting things moving forward.
So, it takes a lot of work, I know Melissa puts in a lot of work before our board meetings, putting together that information that allows us to be informed enough to be able to make those decisions at those board meetings, and I think it’s critical.
Wonderful. Thank you so much. So we’d like to now open it up to the audience as well as those online, for any questions that you would like to ask our panelists, ask Joel or myself, or really any Tidesters here in the room. And if there aren’t any questions we have a couple here.
Hi I’m Justin, I’m from No Bully, I’m one of the tenants here at Tides. And I have a couple of questions. I am very fortunate in my organization that I get to sit on three of the sub committees of our board as well as I get to go into our board meetings and I take the board minutes. So this is one of the committees that I’m invested in the most, is our nominating and governance committee. So thank you guys for coming out here today, this has been really useful for me.
My question is, so I have a couple of questions. You guys talked about earlier with recruitment. How do you identify members that are currently existing in the organization, who you can see as being a succession, as a next generation, and how do you sort of mentor that, how do you cultivate that, with that board member that you think, “Okay, I’m thinking about this person’s going to come off, what can I do to help prep the person for success.”
So somebody who’s going to move off that board, and how you have somebody ready to fill in?
Yeah, how do you identify them?
Yeah, we actually, so probably Michael doesn’t know this, but we have in staff meetings where we talk about where we’re seeing leadership come up and what the newest ideas are that are coming up from across our membership, because we’re a membership body. And it is from different places at different times, and we really try to notice that, and when we hear from those leaders…
So we do a lot of training, technical assistance events, we really try to put them in a place to be part of planning those kinds of things or bringing in a set of expertise, or some of them, they have an idea that they want to carry forward but they really need our staff capacity to be able to do it, and so then they do some advising. So we notice that and we encourage that and pay attention to it.
And then, as we’re thinking about things, like one staff person leaves their job so they’re no longer chairing a particular committee in our membership, because they’re no longer in our membership body, because we’re the public health department membership. We’ll think about those people who have been actively leading and ask them if they’re interested.
And that’s our goal for us, I think the way Michael talked about it, you can hear we have a very active board, people are really engaged. It’s because we try to really encourage people who have already taken action in some way, to then take the next level of action, and that moves them into the board.
I’ll just add something really quick to that. I think it’s important as board members to… At least in BARHII it’s been very important to actually pull people in to BARHII from the organization, to get involved in the committees, even if they’re not on the board. Because then those people, that provides opportunities for those individuals to grow up, become… not grow up. To grow into understanding the mission and then be able to grow into leadership roles and then assume some of those board positions as they grow into those roles.
Yeah, I think specifically for you and up and coming next gen board members, I wouldn’t say we have a particular strategy, but I think, if this is a strategy, you start noticing who are those emerging leaders that are attending our events or are putting out papers. I’ll say health equity work in particular, it’s a very small field, unfortunately, and when you look at health equity work with Latinx communities it’s even smaller. So there’s only so many folks that we can potentially draw from in terms of the pool, and within that community you start noticing who are those leaders that you start noticing on panel discussions for example, or put out particularly interesting papers, or leading a particularly interesting project across the state. And I think you start having those one on one conversations, it does take a lot of work to start cultivating those relationships. It’s not, we put out an application out there and then get dozens of responses, but it’s really that one on one engagement that seems to be what has worked for us.
We have another question?
Yeah, I wanted to see if some of you could comment on the size of the board, an optimal size of the board. So, I have a new nonprofit, and we’re just three people and our board is three people, but I was wondering, it would seem like always an odd number, but generally is it three, five, seven, more, and how do you think about when to grow your board?
I guess I would say that there is no one rule on this, it really has so much more to do with what you’re trying to accomplish, and how many voices you, as the staff, can effectively engage. And it often grows and shrinks based upon other circumstances of what you’re trying to accomplish.
It’s been obvious that when organizations are preparing for maybe a large capital campaign, you want to build that but smart boards create multiple entities, multiple bodies, to be able to accommodate that work. So you don’t have at all as the governing body, but multiple entities.
Yeah, our board, Michael and I were just whispering trying to figure out what our number is, we’re between 15 and 20 people, we’d have to write people’s names down and add them up. And that is fine, I wouldn’t go any bigger than that, because we want it to be easy enough to schedule meetings, it’s difficult to schedule meetings, even though we set them a year in advance. But I’m on two boards that are much smaller than that, one that’s more like 8 people and one that’s probably closer to 12, and I think those boards function really well. And I think probably for us, we’re a little bit bigger, because we have multiple issues we want to make sure we have the right expertise [inaudible 01:00:51] across them.
Yeah, our board is 12 and it’s about right for our mission and what we’re trying to accomplish. I will say I serve on boards that are smaller than that, those seem to work out pretty well. One board that I’m on, it’s closer to like 40, and it feels like you’re in a lecture hall. Honestly, everyone’s like in a huge circle, and it’s for a research institute, and you don’t really even have an opportunity to really offer your feedback. So a lot of the feedback is in SurveyMonkey, Google Form, after the meeting, or prior to the meeting, and that size doesn’t seem to work as well.
My CPCA board is 30, I’m on one with 4, and you make them work… Yeah, so I see that there’s value to all the different sizes depending on the situation.
Yeah. Just be intentional about how you’re structuring that.
I’m going to take this opportunity to thank our panelists. So helpful, so wonderful to have you share your lessons learned, and recommendations. And for all of you who joined us, thank you so much. We’ll be able to prepare and provide resources from the session, and please stay in touch. Thank you all very much.
Q: How would these recommendations be different for an all volunteer organization? When there is no staff to carry out the work, the board and other volunteers do all the work.
A: In start-up or volunteer-led organizations, often the board is the core of the organization’s workforce as well as its governing body. The board should be transparent about these two purposes and attend to both the governing of the organization while working to further its mission. A good model is to maintain separate meetings for these two needs.
Q: When you spoke about financial commitment being a required ingredient for board members, did you mean that they have to have the financial means to make that kind of commitment? It seems this would create a bias towards the more wealthy to direct and steer these organisations. Wouldn’t this feed into an elitist approach in boards?
A: Financial commitment is not a required ingredient, but each board member should make a meaningful contribution to the organization. This commitment doesn’t have to be monetary. That said, it is the responsibility of the existing board leadership to determine the expectations of each board member. Some boards commit to a diversity of board member contributions. One approach is to ask board members to contribute “wealth, wisdom and/or work.”
Q: Can you give advice about board members who are not engaged and perhaps should be asked to step down but would likely be upset or angry at that suggestion?
A: Disengaged board members can set a new lower bar for other board members’ involvement. Actively addressing this with individual board members can help avoid this spilling over to others. Consider implementing an annual board expectation commitment letter, where the organization makes commitments to the board member and vice versa.
A structure or process for board assessment and board member self-evaluation could also help the executive director as well as the board itself to understand and acknowledge where board members are not engaged. This assessment also provides the individual board member with some self awareness around their own limitations and contributions. Depending on those results, the executive director can then have a conversation with the board member to discuss their capacity, time commitment, and level of engagement with the organization.
You could also consider implementing staggered term limits that force the discussion with every renewal period.
Q: How can you effectively engage a board whose members are far flung (e.g. national in nature) vs. local?
A: This will depend on the board’s recruitment strategy, engagement, and the organization’s priorities and mission. One idea is to create committees that pertain to the board member’s strengths and how it aligns with the organization’s mission and priorities. Under this structure, the executive director will be able to effectively align the members for better engagement.
It may be useful to hold one to two in-person board retreats annually to tackle the most strategic topic and to build board cohesion. Consider making every committee and board meeting a video conference rather than a phone call. Each board member may offer specific expertise, so you might consider engaging them on targeted projects with clear deliverables to provide focus, direction, and clear partners throughout their tenure.
Q: What is your view on having executive director or other staff members on the board?
A: Like many questions like this, there is a specific context for your situation. Many young organizations elevate one of their peer board members to become the director. There should be clear structures to manage for potential conflicts of interest, such as the executive director not voting on any salary raises pertaining to their role.
In more mature organizations, it is less likely that the director sits on the board, but serves as staff to the board. At this stage, the board leans into one of its primary functions in hiring, evaluating, and departure of the director. Additionally, other staff often prepare and attend board meetings especially if they staff initiatives or committees in partnership with the board members.
Regardless of approach on this topic, it is critical that the board hold regular executive sessions without any staff attending so that the board can freely discuss areas of concern for the organization and for the board itself.