Children's Voice May/June 2006

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Management Matters

Great Boards
How the Board Can Measure It's Own Passion and Commitment

By Charles L. Baker

Across America, many child welfare agencies are struggling. Others are upbeat and positive. All are working in an environment with significant challenges.

Today's America has seen the rise of both religious and political conservatism. Both believe the individual is paramount and that we have few collective responsibilities--everything is the responsibility of the individual. Elected officials seldom speak of a sense of service to the poor or needy. Agencies with decades of commitment to suffering children often feel out of step with these views.

Reformers in the public sector have strongly supported ideas designed to improve nonprofit organizations, including licensing, accreditation, and performance-based contracts. None of these, of course, guarantee perfect service, and even in the best organization, one unpreventable incident can result in months of investigation and scrutiny. Agencies are expected to be mistake-free while serving highly volatile children.

The private sector has added to the pressure, always insisting on behavior that is more business-like. Executives everywhere have earned or are working on MBAs, boards are adding audit committees to the organization, and executives are concerned about the effects of Sarbanes-Oxley. [See "Better Governance for Nonprofits: Translating the Lessons of Enron and Sarbanes-Oxley," Agency Briefs, Children's Voice, July 2004.]

These attempts to push nonprofits to become more like the public sector or more like the private sector miss the point. Our agencies are part of a third sector--economist Jeremy Rifkin calls us the "cultural sector." As such, we bring unique strengths to society.

And the champions for our value to society must be our board members.

What nonprofit agencies do best is not primarily about business practice or outcome measurement. It is Mission. The basic values of society are manifested in the cultural sector. When asked about her own "lack of progress," as she repeatedly fed and cared for the same poor individuals day after day, Mother Theresa replied, "I'm not called to be effective--I'm called to be faithful."

Unfortunately, much of today's passion for mission--what we might call "making the world a better place"--is staff-driven. Nearly all the innovative, community-changing, social entrepreneurship of today's organizations is vested in the founders of new nonprofits and in older agencies with highly creative CEOs.

This must change. To create a genuine partnership with the executive, the board must be more than a check and balance to the staff. The board must feel the same degree of passion for the agency's mission. The definition for bottom-line leadership from the board must become more about the mission than it is about the money.

Without that, the board governance concept is broken. And as evidence of that, it's commonplace today to find boards that work hard to hold executives accountable but fail to measure their own performance or accept responsibility for their own mistakes. One beleaguered Executive said of his board's passion, "Their major emotions seem to be pity (for the clients) and annoyance (with the staff.)"

Given today's hostile environment, we need board members who are more likely to go to bed not worried about the shrinking endowment, but weeping over the suffering of the children we need to serve.

Great boards look at the children and families the agency serves and say, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Poorly functioning boards keep themselves personally isolated from clients and seem to think, like the Puritans, that they somehow earned their own privileged status.

Good board members know their service is not about status, networking, or warm feelings; they know it's about personal growth. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow said about his own personal growth:
Instead of trying to recruit volunteers by promising them that it will make them feel better, nonprofits should show people that in the process of taking care of others, they will grow. Through the act of giving, my whole self-concept is enlarged. I'm literally a stronger, more effective person.

The Self-Evaluation of the Board

The responsibilities of the board to keep the organization vital and sustain its value to the community are enormous. It's no longer enough to hire a talented CEO and keep out of her way. Just as the passion of a good CEO drives personal and organizational growth, boards must find their own passion. And as an innate part of that growth, boards should be evaluating their own performance.

Here are the priorities for that evaluation, and the questions good board members ask themselves.

Mission
  • Am I passionate about the agency's mission? Does it make the world a better place?
Reality
  • Do I know how the agency is unique? How is it different from or better than others that provide the same service?

  • Do I know how we are functioning in critical areas (including quality of services, satisfaction of customers, fiscal health, appropriate and beautiful buildings and furnishings, and employee satisfaction)?
People
  • Do I have a great executive who makes me proud? Does he partner with me, lead the staff, and provide a vision of the future? The primary job of the board is to select, support, and retain an exceptional executive.

  • Do I support the executive to take bold action on behalf of the clients we serve? Anybody can make cuts--it takes courage to be bold.
Here is a suggested checklist for the annual review of the board's performance. Each board member should make his or her own assessment before compiling an overall assessment. One suggestion would be to use three separate small groups of board members to grade overall board performance, using one group to evaluate the board's performance for each heading.

Mission, reality, and people--that's the correct priority order. It's tempting to assume all agency problems can be corrected by changing people, by hiring a new executive. But both mission and reality should be examined thoroughly before making a change in leadership.

These are challenging times for the survival of child welfare organizations. We need great staff, but more importantly today than ever before, we must have boards that are passionate about our missions.

Charles L. Baker is the President of Baker & Company, Louisville, Kentucky, providing support for nonprofit boards, executive coaching, and executive talent matching. Interested in sharing your thoughts on reviewing the performance of boards? Contact him at charlie.baker@insightbb.com or 502/290-4316.


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