Over the last year, I've been working with Patrick's Cabaret, a small non-profit organization in Minneapolis dedicated to serving artists on the fringes of society. The Cabaret has experienced incredible change - difficult changes - with lots of silver linings and opportunities embedded within.
I was invited to support them in some short term planning efforts at the end of 2016 and then, to support the board with activation of the plans. This work is reminiscent of my time as Board Chair of In the Heart of the Beast and reminds me of so many board-related reflections during that time of my own life. Here are some of those thoughts:
Boards are often slow moving bodies. Consensus decision-making takes time and its tricky and unwieldy. And, consensus is critical to board cohesion. Boards often struggle to make these extremely large decisions for the future of an organization and need time to develop deep understanding of the "right" path to take. Unfortunately, this can be in conflict with the nimble nature of the staff + programming and organization overall. How can that tension be reconciled and proactively addressed?
Engaged boards are critical to success. Boards, especially working boards, need to actually DO work in addition to setting policy and direction. Not to mention that setting policy and direction requires actual work. Having clear responsibilities, working in between board meetings, and committing to the ongoing work is essential for board success. This can be tough for even the most committed board members with full lives and layers of obligations in their lives and family. How can leadership - both board and organizational - support sustained commitment and activation of board membership?
Most people don't feel qualified for their responsibilities as a board member - either time or skills or knowledge. Some people express this doubt publicly and others are more reserved. Joining a board is a learning experience regardless of your level of expertise or former board positions and an environment that is grounded in teaching/learning regardless of stature is critical for board development and cohesion. The critical element for successful board membership is a willingness to try, to ask questions and to do what you say you'll do.
Board members are tough to recruit, especially for working boards. How does a board go from searching for board members to turning them away?
Ultimately, I'm always left wondering: What makes people join boards? And, how do boards recruit members who are willing to dive in and learn and take chances? How do board members stay engaged? Ultimately, striking that perfect balance of volunteer accountability to the work, skills and abilities of the board members, and connection to the work is difficult to find and maintain. I hope, more than anything else, that people (all of you) understand the importance of volunteering time for board work. It's tough, but its an incredible learning opportunity.