Are You a Good Board Member?

Marreen Sabia, chair of the board of Canadian Tire Corporation is quoted in a November 2010 Globe and Mail Report on Business as follows:

“I can remember when I was first on a board and went to my first board meeting.  My book was all messed up because I had been writing things all over it.  I looked around the room and saw a bunch of pristine books and remember thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever be able to get to the point where they are – where they can just jeep all those things in their heads.’  What I learned was that they hadn’t read the briefs.  So reading the materials and having knowledge of the material so that you have the ability to express an opinion on it are two of the most important things.  Silent board members aren’t terribly useful.”

Unfortunately, too many members of voluntary association boards never think about the organization between meetings and many more attend without having looked at the material provided by staff and others.  This is a waste of staff time and resources and an insult to others who have done so.

Carole Bearde is a not-for-profit consultant with some 25 years of experience in senior program positions including six years as the executive vice-president of the The McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota family foundation with assets of over $2 billion dollars.  In an article written in Nonprofit Director, she is quoted as saying:

Effective boards involve three main elements:

1.      Information

Boards work best when the directors come to board meetings well informed because staff have provided them with the tools they need to engage in meaningful and generative discussions.

2.      Questions

Effective boards ask insightful questions during their meetings, questions that are based on the information they have received in advance, filtered through the context of each board member’s experience.

3.      Decisions

Effective boards make decisions. The members are energized by the nature of the discussions and welcome the opportunity to contribute their knowledge, experience, and expertise to the deliberative process.

But, she says, information, questions, and decisions are not enough. Boards will never be effective unless the people they’re made up of are effective.

It begins with engagement, in her view. “Board members who are engaged in an organization’s work outside of the formal board meetings can participate in those meetings in a much more informed way,” she says.

Making this happen is a shared responsibility, she adds. “It starts with the executive director or staff leadership, but it’s also incumbent on the board member to let staff leadership know how much they can be engaged, what aspects of the organization’s work interests them, and how they think they can contribute to advance the organization’s mission.”

We have all served as members of not-for-profit boards – local and national associations, libraries and so on and we all have experienced the frustration of being at a meeting with others who are boringly unprepared.

What kind of board member are you?  Are you really interested in the work that needs to be done or are you simply there at your convenience for the glory and prestige.  If such is the case, you are doing the organization a great disservice.

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