April 30, 2021

How to Move from an Operational to a Governance Board in 5 “Easy” Steps

How to Move from an Operational to a Governance Board  in 5 "Easy" StepsOne of my early professional jobs involved making hospital visits. One week at a new hospital, I rode the elevator to the second floor to visit a patient. After our meeting, I took the elevator to return to my car.

Common experience, right? Except that as I exited the elevator after the call, I realized I saw the same bulletin board across the hallway I’d seen moments before.

Even though I thought I’d gone somewhere, I’d taken a rides to nowhere twice.

Moving from operations to a governance board can be like riding to nowhere. You gain agreement from your board to focus on strategy and governance . You think you’re getting somewhere. But later in the same meeting, the board circles back to offer unsolicited advice on running programs, hiring staff, and the like.

Governance boards establish policies, select the CEO, and provide high-level fiduciary oversight. “They do not run programs, “reorganize the development office, micromanage events, suggest design concepts for brochures, and except for the CEO, make hiring decisions,” shares Vicki Pugh, Vice President for Development at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

How to Move from a Nonprofit Operational Board to a Governance Board

pad and pen to Assign governance accountability1. Assign governance accountability

Okay, let’s assume you shared the different board, CEO, and staff responsibilities with your board. Now, you want to establish governing accountability inside the board to move from an operational to a governance  board. Lots of options exist. Your chair can begin the meeting by asking a different member each meeting to keep a running tally of the time spent on governance vs. management issues. The chair can assign another one to remind you to evaluate the meeting before you close. While your options vary, the goal is the same, let the board be in charge of its accountability.

Be careful here not to reduce the board accountability, watch this video for common errors.

A big check list to remind you to check your board agenda for governance items2. Check your agenda for governance items

Boards want to give you the help you need. Make sure you give them meat to chew. That is policy and strategy issues, not management concerns. Check this video for help setting an outstanding board agenda.

a hiker icon to remind board members that they are on a governance journey3. Remind your board of the governance destination

When we change behaviors, prompts help. Build in reminders at your meetings. You might, for example, give everyone a red card to indicate “stop.” Invite members to pull out their cards when the discussion meanders into operations. Or, start your meeting with congratulating them about how well they did with staying in governance during the last meeting. Unfortunately, they will need prompts. That’s because, they’ve thought less about the board and its role than you, since your last meeting.

A clock to remind you that boards will do more governance if they aren't tired4. Be brief

Insist on short meetings. Exploring strategy is hard work. Long sessions tire people. Tired people get cranky. Cranky people dig into details, make poor decisions, and offend others.

Don’t believe me? Notice when your meetings go negative. Note the time. Nine-out-of-ten times you’ll find you passed the one-hour mark. For more tips on outstanding board meeting watch this video.

an evaluation marked governance excellent 5. Evaluate governance at each meeting

Before you close meetings, ask the board to evaluate your process. Rotate tactics. At one meeting,  ask open-ended questions. At a second meeting, request anonymous answers written on an index card. Next time, hand out a quick survey with a Likert scale, etc. Ask three or fewer questions. Always include a variation on this one: What percent of the meeting did we spend on governance versus operations?

You can ride the elevator to the a board that focuses governance. Assign accountability. Remind you member of the destination.  Evaluate progress. And, just like with elevator rides, be brief.

Your challenge today

Pick one of the governance board behaviors above. Apply it to your next board meeting.

If you are not ready to move toward a governance board, start with getting your board to stop micromanaging. Read How to Stop Your Board from Micromanaging.

For more about nonprofit boards:

Watch How to Recruit Stellar Board Members.

Read Guilty As Charged: Prove Your Board Supports Your Organization to engage your board.

For more answers, explore Karen’s Nonprofit CEO Library.

For solutions delivered to your inbox, sign up for Karen’s CEO Solutions.

Need more help with your board? Karen is available for a mini-consult, and more. Click here to email or here to set a time to chat.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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