One Day to a Better Board: GCN’s Board Leadership Clinic Returns
On October 15, GCN held our annual Board Leadership Clinic, sponsored by Mauldin & Jenkins and hosted by the Loudermilk Center in downtown Atlanta. Board members and chairs, executive directors and CEOs, managers and administrators convened early Tuesday morning to begin a day of interactive presentations and workshops tackling the whys and hows of an effective nonprofit board. Attendee Julia Bernath, board chair at GCN member Sandy Springs Education Force, said that the clinic provided “many different, great ideas” for her relatively young organization.
The day kicked off with a stimulating session about moving “from Bored to Board,” led by Dana Lupton (ED) and Heather Infantry (Development Director) of GCN member Moving in the Spirit, a youth development organization that uses dance to educate, inspire, and unite young people. Lupton got the room on its feet for a round of team-building activities—walking around the room in various states of engagement, then pairing up for a listening challenge and a trust exercise called “holding up the sky.”
These kinds of techniques, Lupton revealed, aren’t just good for getting classrooms of dance students warmed up—they’ve helped turn around a board that wasn’t working to its potential, by getting board members to interact, appreciate one another, and build relationships. Those relationships, Lupton and Infantry agreed, are the keys to a high-performing board. They also took attendees through a Board Leadership Plan and techniques for improving communication.
The Fundamentals Still Count
The day continued with a presentation from Rachel Epps Spears, ED of Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, on the 10 questions you should ask to keep your nonprofit out of legal trouble, looking at the legal risks your board should be aware of and the ways to address them. A concurrent session, led by Aleisa K. Howell and Jeff Fucito, partners at CPA firm (and clinic co-sponsors) Mauldin & Jenkins, tackled the basics of good governance, including the activities and processes that “carry you through.” Howell and Fucito highlighted the ways that the public and other interested parties can access your filings through sites like Charity Navigator and Guidestar, showing attendees how the fundamentals don’t just create a solid foundation for all your work, but also tell grantmakers, donors, and (the very rare) auditor that your organization is secure and committed to long-term sustainability.
“Board members are important to you. If you don’t have them in your phone, if you don’t know about them, how may kids they have, what’s going on in their lives, you’re missing the heart of the matter!”
Following lunch, GCN’s own Cindy Cheatham, VP of Consulting, and Mary Bear Hughes, Senior Consultant, led sessions on “Effective CEO Assessments” and “Successful Leadership Succession & Transition,” respectively. Bear Hughes outlined the ways she’s prepared dozens of nonprofits to handle a change in leadership, emphasizing the importance of developing a succession plan far in advance of any particular transition. Cheatham, meanwhile, gave her audience a better understanding of ways to evaluate the CEO, in all its many functions, without creating discomfort or conflict. The key: a transparent, agreed-upon feedback process, one that uses open-ended questions, “SMART” goals, active listening, and thoughtful preparation.
Relationships, Stories, and Connections
The final session of the day, led by Leann Pearson, lead strategist at Development Services Group, looked at “How Positive Activity Creates Opportunity.” This presentation looked at ways to equip the board to be champions for your organization—not just fundraisers or advisors. Pearson re-emphasized the importance of relationships, stories, and connections when preparing your board members to become board champions. To find out if a particular board member is ready, Pearson suggested asking for a story about how the organization affected them personally. If they can’t do that, work with them to develop a story that illustrates the impact of your organization in a descriptive, rather than quantitative, manner: not “we fed 2,500 people,” but “we put people in need at tables of 10 to share a meal with a community business leader and discuss job skills.”
Pearson’s talk reinforced the point made at the beginning of the day by Moving in the Spirit ED Lupton: “Board members are important to you. If you don’t have them in your phone, if you don’t know about them, how may kids they have, what’s going on in their lives, you’re missing the heart of the matter!”
Getting to know your board apart from the short, infrequent, and business-focused board meetings, Lupton said, should be the first priority in your efforts to build a better board.
Marc Schultz is Writer/Editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.