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Mary Hiland, PhD

About Mary

Exploring Board Development: Part One - What is it?

You have only to listen in a gathering of executive directors to hear the challenges boards can present. We have all heard the stories of woes when boards are dysfunctional. But where are the stories about what is working? We know nonprofit boards matter. But declaring it does not help many executives and board members achieve the level of performance they hope for.

Definition of Board Development

In contemplating what really works as “board development” it occurred to me to first ask: what is it? A review of literature and the internet surprisingly failed to yield a definition of board development. Carter McNamara commented in a recent blog “ . . . the first steps aren’t all of those needed for complete Board development—those steps would produce a blog post about twenty-five pages long.” (http://managementhelp.org). Sounds daunting! People refer to it, consultants claim to facilitate it, but what is “it” actually? Over the past year, in conversations with over fifty-nine executive directors and board members, I studied the concept and process of board development when it works. This article, and one to follow, will share what I learned. This first article attempts a definition of board development and shares the five dimensions of it revealed in my study. The second article will discuss the factors critical to board development success and how it makes a difference.

Asking executive directors and board members for their definitions of board development revealed an interesting perspective. They think of board development with the end in mind: they spoke of what they expect the process to achieve, rather than the process itself or an actual definition. For executives and board members alike, board development means a combination of attracting the right board members, supporting them in their own development, creating a cohesive team, and building the board’s capacity to be responsive and deliver value for the organization.

I like to consult a dictionary when considering meaning. Development is “. . . a gradual growth or advancement through progressive changes; increasing capabilities and becoming more mature; evolving to a higher or more useful stage.” With this, and study participants’ views in mind, I suggest that board development is a cluster of processes by which a group of individuals learns, creates, and becomes an optimally functioning and contributing governing board.

The Five Dimensions of Board Development

Board development in truth is very complex, as most processes involving groups of people are. Executives and board members’ “definitions” do not codify board development in a succinct sentence or two, but rather describe its promise and its dimensions. There are five.

  1. Alignment. The most commonly described dimension of board development is board recruitment. For some, they are practically synonymous. There is an interesting nuance however. As one executive described: “Board development is not just sweeping people up off the street as we used to do.” Referring to Jim Collin’s metaphor (Good to Great), she said it’s getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats. Another executive had a similar comment: “It’s all about aligning the board with the needs of the organization—make sure you have the right people doing the right things with the right skills and supports.” This assumes of course that the board has done the work necessary to know who the right people are and what “seats” are needed. That work is part of board development. It is really a process of achieving alignment—among board members and the strategic work of the organization. It involves answering key questions like: what is the board’s important work and who (character, competence, contribution, commitment) do we need to do it?
  2. Individual growth. The second dimension of board development is the development of individuals into effective board members. As one board member stated, “Making each board member the best he/she can be.” Even if you have the “right” person, what does he/she understand about the organization? About this particular board? About what board service requires, etc.? Developing the board means, in part, developing each individual as an optimal board member.
  3. Team-building. We know effective boards are effective teams. Understanding how teams develop and perform and leading the board to become an effective team is an important dimension of board development. As stated by a board chair, board development is “fine-tuning our ability work as a team.”
  4. Asset creation. A fourth dimension of board development is creating value for the organization through the synergy of a diverse and effective team. It is also tapping into and leveraging of all the assets and capital (intellectual, social, physical, financial, etc.) board members bring.
  5. Maturity. Finally, board development is about building the capacity of the board for leadership and, thus, mission-impact. “It is almost like a maturity in understanding the needs of the organization and their role as a collective group” is representative of several study participants’ comments. Board development includes gaining the ability to strategically respond to external dynamics, opportunities and challenges, and to engage with community for desired change.

The Process of Board Development

The promise of board development is the full realization of these five dimensions. The recognition that great governance is more than getting the roles and responsibilities straight is no longer new but the old view is still pervasive in our thinking and writing. Executive directors and board members’ definitions of board development reveal their hopes for great governance. We know exceptional boards when we experience them. But, we haven’t engaged in enough discovery and discussion to learn the critical factors underlying the developmental process of becoming an exceptional board.

Several board members I interviewed commented: we have learned what we can become, but we don’t know how. Anything involving a group of people is complex and understanding the essence of nonprofit board development is no different. What is the process? How does a group of well-intentioned volunteers, in partnership with an executive, “develop” the board to achieve the promise of its full potential? Stay tuned for the next article on the critical success factors of the process.

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