DYO – Three Ways Nonprofit Boards Can Improve Its Team


Thank you to Dr Ruth Knight for this article.

I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for over 20 years and met a lot of Boards of Management; small, large, dysfunctional and high performing. I’ve noticed all are highly passionate and caring, they love their organisation and the work their staff and volunteers do.

So it’s very curious to me that so many Boards find it hard to work together as a team! There seems to be a lot of disagreement about the Board’s role and responsibilities, what they should spend their time talking about, and the decisions they should be making. Many Boards become stagnant, disengaged or disorganised due to not working together effectively.

Have you also noticed problems with role clarity and how Boards measure their performance?

QUT researchers Professors Gavin Nicholson, Cameron Newton and Myles McGregor-Lowndes certainly did when they put the microscope on how Boards think and operate. They distilled the need for significant improvements to the way Boards think about themselves, and how they address challenges. Boards typically don’t spend time reflecting on their performance. The study finds:

Quite simply, there is strong and growing evidence that the effectiveness of an organisation’s governance system relies on an effective board operating well together as a team. Thus, opening the “black box” of how the board operates is seen by many as the most important challenge facing the field.

It starts with the willingness to take a good and objective look at how the team is working together, and being honest about what they need to do to improve their performance.

Yes, it can be hard to ask for feedback from your peers, management and organisation. That is why so many Boards never prioritise critically reviewing their own performance. It is also a very difficult task to review the performance of a Board – what criteria do you measure yourself against?

Six years ago at ACPNS within QUT Nicholson, Newton and McGregor-Lowndes decided to use concepts and elements of a team development model to review Board performance. Their model was adapted for the unique nature of the governing body to assess the team-based aspects of a board’s performance. In 2012, they analysed the self-perceptions of 118 active nonprofit board members from 18 boards around Australia and identified a number of issues for Boards who want to become better teams. ACPNS has been applying the resulting validated research tool to hundreds of organisations since.

As I read and reflected on this research I identified three tips for Boards:

#1: See yourself as a team

The episodic nature of the Board’s work varies dramatically from most work groups that meet on a far more regular basis, therefore some Boards don’t see themselves as a team or develop themselves as other work teams would. But this is very dangerous, as an organisation’s Board has a profound effect on organisational performance and outcomes. Therefore, it is imperative that Board members see themselves as a team, and seek support and training to become a high performing one!

#2: Ask for, and be open to, constructive feedback

Often Boards don’t ask for feedback, but this means those Boards are not aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They are not reflecting or creating a culture of continuous improvement. There’s value in constructive criticism, and Boards must remember that this is the best way to improve how they work as a team, and also become personally more effective. Boards should review feedback from each other, management, employees and beneficiaries. Smart boards use team reflection to understand what this feedback means and then take proactive steps to address the issues constructively. Doing this regularly will help them become more successful in everything they do.

#3: Demonstrate accountability on the team

Accountability is critical on all teams–especially leadership teams who are governing an organisation. Accountability should be a trait that Directors on a Board value, and demonstrate personally and collectively. Directors should read Board reports, involve themselves in strategic discussions, avoid conflicts of interest, have excellent communication skills and build trust within the team. Taking personal and collective responsibility for being accountable will create a good culture, and minimise dysfunctional team behaviours that are often driven by pride and ego.

What valuable lessons have your learnt working with Boards? What other things must Boards do to ensure they are performing well as a team and having a positive impact on the organisation? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

To read the paper Nicholson, Gavin J., Newton, Cameron J., & McGregor-Lowndes, Myles (2012) The nonprofit board as a team: pilot results and initial insights. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 22(4), pp. 383-528. Click here

Thanks for reading!

Did you know that ACPNS offer courses for staff, board and other volunteer professionals who work, or are entering the philanthropy, nonprofit or social enterprise sectors? In fact one of the units deals specifically with governance.

Philanthropic and Nonprofit Frameworks of Governance

The unit explores contemporary understandings of philanthropic and nonprofit governance in the context of social, economic and political systems. It locates these understandings in various theoretical and descriptive frameworks providing students with both the knowledge and analytical skills that are necessary to reflect critically on philanthropy and nonprofit governance systems and their environments.

Check out our Study with us page for more info or call to request a free course information pack. +61 7 3138 1020. Please get in touch, this could be your next best career move.

Connect with me on LinkedIn or on Twitter @Drruthknight. And listen to some conversations with great speakers and ACPNS students on the Student Experience page of our blog.

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