Shared Learnings
| September 13, 2022

Guidance and Grace: What Start-up Founders Need from Experienced Board Members

Spring Point Partners is happy to offer a forum for our consulting partners and their unique voices. Posts reflect the views of their authors, not SPP. The piece below was written by Dawn Holden Woods based on her work with several nonprofits across the country. Dawn serves as an SPP consultant, offering executive coaching for several of our nonprofit grantee partners.

By Dawn Holden Woods, Founder & President of Generative Consulting Partners

When it comes to nonprofit boards and their functionality, it is critical that both founders and early board members find a shared perspective regarding what constitutes an effective board.

What is a board? Who defines the function of a board and where and how is that definition shared?

What is it?

A good board is a check and balance on the nonprofit’s mission and clarity of vision, but it is also so much more than that. It offers air cover when needed, guidance and oversight at other times. As a group, board members can maintain a perspective of the big picture, but its individual members must also possess the aptitude, skill sets and experience to advise (and even intervene directly when asked) to tackle issues on the ground.

Yet, the art of assembling and working effectively with a board, and communicating, refining, and driving shared purpose, is one that is often under-appreciated or misunderstood within the nonprofit sector. What can be an exhilarating set of relationships, propelling an organization to new heights, can also become one mired in suspicion and frustration — a handbrake rather than an accelerator.

As a consultant who works directly with nonprofit leaders, I encounter this dynamic often in my work.  One particular exchange with a nonprofit founder has stayed with me, and I’m sharing it here in full (but with deserved anonymity) to illustrate the frustration leaders on the ground grapple with frequently.

Me: Seems like you have something else on your mind. I have time to continue our meeting if you do.

Nonprofit Founder: (blurts out) I hate my board. They’re supposed to help me, but they’re useless.  I just exchanged words with my board chair. (throws hands up)

I’m thinking about overhauling the board and starting over in the fall.

Me: Say more…

Nonprofit founder: They’re inconsistent and focused on the wrong things when they do show up. I have too many other things to focus on with this new grant we just received.  It’s easier to just start over.

Me: I appreciate your honesty and I still have PTSD from my days as an executive director. And yet, I wonder…don’t you have several folks who are new to nonprofit boards serving with you? Have you or your board chair ever clarified expectations?

And, by the way, you do know it will require a fair amount of time and tact to off board everyone – right?

(Awkward silence)

Me: Let’s strategize and work on an onboarding plan including some governance support before kicking them all off (we both laugh).

And while we gift each other some much needed relief, the issue at hand is truly not a laughing matter. Nor is it an isolated one.

Designing an effective board culture is a primary driver of organizational success, yet it can often be elusive for both new and seasoned executive directors.

Identifying the root causes of board dysfunction is only the first step. What follows is usually an arduous process requiring a multiyear commitment to fix that dysfunction. The process is further complicated by societal norms that have framed board service as more of a rite of passage than a values-based commitment to work in collaboration with an organization focused on eradicating harm or injustice for a segment of the population that matters to you. Even more concerning is the common perception that board dysfunction is the norm rather than an anomaly.  

While managing effective boards creates an engine for strategic growth, for many nonprofit leaders, especially early founders, it can sometimes feel more like a nuisance. Navigating this new terrain can often be problematic for nonprofit founders already juggling the rigors of ramping up a new social enterprise. For some, as the organization matures, the “hands-on” approach that was once beneficial for a start-up may eventually feel crippling.  For others, lack of boundaries and entangled relationships, such as when boards are primarily composed of family or close friends – can drive away newer board members.  Whatever the cause, disengaged board members take up valuable relational space, robbing these nonprofit founders of the opportunity to engage more deeply in natural advising and consultation. This further exacerbates isolation among most leaders and is even more complicated for Black and Brown founders who may already feel forced to “over function” to meet the expectations of external partners.

While nuances can be present, the overarching message among many of the leaders I have engaged in my consulting practice is the same – my board is unintentionally hindering our organizational progress – period.

My purpose in preparing this piece is twofold. First, I want to highlight a few distinct hurdles facing both early-stage nonprofit boards and founders. Second, I want to normalize the experiences of founders and board members alike in hopes of shifting discourse toward  practice that honors guidance, grace and high expectations.

Here’s What Early-Stage Nonprofit Board Members Should Keep in Mind:

#1 Join to Collaborate, not to Dictate!

Serving as a board member on a founding board is a different relational experience.

The most significant difference is the need to navigate the level of ownership and creative tension you’ll experience while working with the founding executive director.  Adaptive leaders are looking to co-design alongside their board, not for their board. If you are not aligned with power sharing and collaborative decision making, you’re probably not a good fit for this type of board experience – end of story. This is a natural tension, given that the founder has given birth to this entity and has dedicated countless hours of their own time (and often, financial resources), long before you were asked to join. This often results in structures that are less hierarchical than what may be found in more traditional boards.  The upside, however, is the ability to mold a board structure poised to co-create meaningful change versus continuing the status quo.

#2 Steward Movement from “Family and Friends” Toward Unencumbered Governance

Many new enterprises, for profit or nonprofit, leverage personal networks – so don’t automatically discount the organization if family members or friends are on the board. However, as the organization matures, mission alignment, passion, and expertise must accompany relational capital, which may be precisely why you were asked to join the board a year or two into its existence. Shifting from a family and friends board requires thoughtfulness and patience, but as a new member you’ll possess the objectivity necessary for the executive director to undertake this critical task.

#3 Be a Thought Leader and a Thought Partner

In private sessions, many practitioners-turned-founders admit they’ve never served on a board or in an executive position with significant board interaction and are unclear what constitutes healthy expectations. And for those who are clear on the delineation between management duties and board fiduciary responsibilities, they are often unprepared for the time investment required to develop a high-functioning board. While certainly many trainings and webinars exist on these topics (although they require time that can be scarce in a startup entity), most of us gain this insight through direct experience as a director or as executive in a nonprofit organization. So, if you join the board of an early-stage nonprofit, suspend judgment and employ grace and curiosity instead.  Finally, early-stage nonprofits are continuously evolving, needing to actualize a new grant or develop a new service delivery strategy – so be prepared to roll up your sleeves as a thought partner, a role that requires a lot more than just showing up for a monthly meeting.  

#4 Support the Development of Board Infrastructure

Nonprofits are generally so hyper-focused on recruitment that they fail to create a meaningful onboarding process.  Susan Kenny Stevens, author of Nonprofit Lifecycles, notes that it’s not uncommon in the early stages for boards to function as a committee of the whole. Depending upon the size of the board, it may be somewhat impractical to have functioning committees with fewer than 8 to 10 board members. Ironically, this is actually a great place for a new member with previous board experience to help develop onboarding processes and tools,  bylaws, manuals, duties, and mentorship guidelines. Of equal importance, you can help develop engagement opportunities for board members to connect with each other so they can then function as an effective body. Board retreats, when planned well, can serve as optimal places  to ensure all directors are aligned around governance standards and any strategic plan that is in place. 

#5 Assess, Reflect, Repeat!  

One guiding principle of high impact organizations is an intentional focus on reflection. Building time and tools for the board to assess its effectiveness, individually and collectively, to reflect on learnings, and to then apply them is critically important. Reflection creates a space to unpack bidirectional learnings and, when blended with proper board competencies and structure, ensures the board’s ability to help catalyze impact.  According to the 2017 Leading with Intent Report published by Boardsource, only 40% of nonprofit boards had completed a self-assessment during the past two years. I like to think of the self-assessment process as a continuous improvement process for boards to revisit alignment, individual and collective responsibility, and clarify key priorities internally and externally with key stakeholders.  Numerous tools exist to complete the assessment process and it is a practical tool that can bring objectivity to conversations with board members and committees that are underperforming. Conversely, they can also help double down on processes that are working and should remain in place.

New ideas and fresh eyes are needed if we ever hope to achieve the community level change we so desperately need. And as a board member, you are close enough to the entity to ask thoughtful questions, but far enough away to spark the creative tension necessary to unleash bold solutions and approaches. There is no such thing as “the perfect board” and with time and intentionality all boards can evolve. Perhaps this piece will encourage you to join the board of an early-stage venture and provide some insights that lead to a highly constructive collaboration between board and founder.

Dawn Holden Woods is the Founder and President of Generative Consulting Partners, a consulting firm designed to help social sector partners create authentic, people-centered solutions that enable leaders and organizations to unlock their full potential. Dawn’s disciplined approach to this work stems from over 20 years of experience in nonprofit and for-profit sectors in strategy, execution, and fundraising.  Her approach is grounded in a set of values that honor community input, seek justice, and believe that marginalized communities and leaders deserve access to high quality and high impact services. Dawn strives to be a “co-conspirator” for good, bringing a unique blend of business practicality and people-first approach to her work.

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