Building Board Culture Ensures Meaningful Impact for Mission-Driven Organizations

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In the times of heightened social unrest caused by the uncovering of underlying inequities during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever that mission-driven boards of directors, new and settled, come to terms with the importance of the role they play in sewing together different fabrics of our societies. It is among the board members’ core responsibilities to invest in building an organizational culture of continuous learning, mutual support and courageous accountability and create meaningful, and irreversible impact in their communities.

Mission and purpose-driven organizations (for-profit or nonprofit) have a unique and fascinating place in our society. They are at the forefront of blending social entrepreneurship and community well-being, moving towards goals that benefit all stakeholders involved. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many mission-driven organizations have faced funding cuts, personnel cuts, and huge setbacks to their programming. This ultimately hits hardest on those who benefit from and need the services or resources offered by these organizations the most. 

Naturally, strong leadership in the face of hardship is what the staff and community members struggling to make ends meet are looking for in their board of directors. Their ability to lead the organization’s work in a time when their community members, their staff, and themselves, are going through immense personal and professional changes, relies on their openness to seek out their blindspots in governance, invest in change management training and capacity building to better develop systems of support for all. This is achieved by building and sustaining a board culture of trust, empathy, support and transparency. Leaders who develop frameworks for their board of directors and organizations with these values are setting themselves up to have real and meaningful impact in their communities.

Trust is essential, and earned

Leading with trust isn’t, and shouldn’t be, strictly bottom-up. True trust building comes with accepting that it needs to be earned, among your board peers, your direction, your staff, and your stakeholders. When a board of directors does not have the trust of their CEO and management, and vice-versa, they are each working in silos. This can cause the CEO to leave the board out of the loop on the organization’s operations and concerns. In return it increases the instances when the board of directors questions the CEOs decisions and micromanages staff members. Additionally, especially in smaller organizations, if the board of directors has no link or relationship built with the non-managerial staff, their interactions and perspective of the CEO’s performance and leadership goes unreported, and thus unchecked. Ultimately, a lack of trust between your staff, leadership, and your board results in poor governance and hinders the overall productivity and reputation of your organization.

Before listing ways to gain or regain the trust of your organization, take a moment to think about why the trust was not there, or was lost, in the first place. As a board member, were you communicating clearly with your ED or CEO on your expectations of their performance? Are you completely clear of your role as a board member? Was there a misunderstanding or difference of opinion between the board and the ED or CEO at a meeting? If so, was it ever resolved? How much importance, if any at all, did you give to your ED or CEO’s opinion on a specific course of action? Do you make an effort to take into account the bottom-line staff’s input on the organization’s direction and future? Are they shown they are valuable to your missions as well? Finding the root cause and mending it with empathy will create a foundation and a common ground from where both parties can build anew. Cultures of trust promote introspection and openness to accept fault in order to build back better. Investing in training your board to stay sharp on practicing trust and continuously keeping open communication channels with your leadership will only positively impact the work everyone is putting out.

Understanding the board’s roles is the first step to building a strong culture

A seat on the board of directors comes with a lot of responsibilities, many of them are often overlooked when running an organization, especially by new board members. Strengthening the board and investing in a common vision requires the members to be fully immersed in their roles as directors, often helped by establishing an internal mentoring system that couples new members to senior members. Mission-driven organizations require boards who excel in three major avenues: governance, strategic direction and accountability. Together, these avenues ensure the adequate and necessary delivery of services and resources that community members grow to depend on.

For example, if you are a board member of a nonprofit that works with local groceries to provide healthy meals to families living in poverty, you are a part of a service that is indispensable to the livelihood of many. One of the most important board roles should be ensuring that your organization’s financials, programming and direction are aligned to  this mission and that you can sustainably remain accountable to your funders and all stakeholders. When each member of the board is aware of their responsibilities, they are more invested in the operations of the organization and the relationship and reputation the organization has built in the community. A strong board is built with a culture that showcases the knowledge, the skills, perspectives and expertise of its members from diverse backgrounds, bringing their whole selves to the table and fully stepping into their roles. This interest in the actual workings of the organization, and the impact of its work on the community, are what will equip the board with the knowledge and the confidence to make strategic decisions when it comes to the future of the services, new and innovative policies to better meet their stakeholders’ needs.

Realistically, not all boards have a hands-on approach to running their organization. Many governing boards are distanced from the operations and rely largely on the ED or CEO and other directors to make the decisions and steer the ship, hopefully in the right direction. There is nothing wrong with embracing a laisser-faire approach to governing, as long as the basic roles and responsibilities are assumed by all board members. The bare minimum that all board members should be aware of is where does the organization stand in the community, in the sector, in comparison to others working towards the same mission. Is your organization’s work promoting your mission? Are you aligned with your mission and are you satisfying your stakeholders? If not, why? If every board member is properly trained in governance, strategic decision making and are fully aware of their fiscal responsibilities, they will be automatically inclined to ask specific questions to their CEO about what is really going on, and demand quantifiable operational data to better help them plan for the future or take preventative measures if need be.

Bottom line is, now more than ever, all eyes are on how well an organization is performing its duties and fulfilling its promises to its stakeholders, which includes the people relying on services – this is especially true for mission-driven organizations. As a member of the board of directors, you are the champion of your organization. It is ultimately up to you and your peers to steer the ship on the right course, practice continuous trust building, and sustain a culture of growth, learning and accountability within your board and organization.

Taharima Habib is a Caravanserai Project Associate and a multidisciplinary community builder and organizer, specializing in facilitation and training design in nonprofit and charity organizations. Born in Bangladesh, she came to Canada at the age of 3 with her family and calls Montreal her home. 

Taharima has a Masters degree in Microbiology and Infectiology from the University of Sherbrooke, where she studied the functions of HIV. After falling in love with the communications and public facing aspect of her academic work, she left research to pursue a career in the community and non-profit sector across Montreal, in grassroots and national organizations.

Taharima has built and sustained relationships in the Montreal communities where she has done consulting work for board of directors and executive staff. Today, Taharima is working with junior and senior staff members in mission-driven organizations across Canada, helping them with professional development, and with board directors as a consultant in Culture and Capacity building.

Join Taharima and our other associates for the Board Engagement and Development Circle to start February 22nd, 2022.

This blog was made possible in part by the generous support provided by the Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund. Caravanserai Project is the recipient of a Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund award aiming to provide programs and services that support small business viability through growth, expansion, innovation, and increased productivity. Read more about this award.

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