Genetic codes aside, the term DNA is now commonly used to describe distinctive characteristics and qualities in almost anything –living or inanimate. Every nonprofit has a DNA! And every board member, if questioned, will probably have a different take on that invisible lifeblood which — for better or worse—impacts the actions of his/her board. One author goes so far as to suggest that “…one common element to create sustainable success is evaluating and interjecting the right DNA.”
He goes on to recommend three steps to make the necessary changes in the nonprofit culture: Assessment, New Genetics, and a Gestation period— the last step being essential …“for the new approach to take hold and grow.” * Following,, as an example, is how it might apply if a nonprofit board needs to move from a traditional Community Board to a Policy/Strategy Board. This is a situation where the board increases its overview responsibilities and decreases or eliminates its involvement in operations, i.e. micromanagement.
Assessment: Evaluations involve defining what the agency is doing well and what systems need to be removed or modified. Listing the former is easy, but dropping long embedded practices can lead to unproductive board conflict. Logically, board members still need to be in their third year of a median four or six-year tenure before sustainability assessment (5 to 10 Years) can be undertaken. Too much legacy culture has been embedded in the Board operations, calling for three to five-year strategic plans. At that point, most or all of the current board members will have been termed out of their positions
I once observed, as an example, a board that made a strategic decision about changing the timing of an annual fundraising event. Once the decision was made, the board took the remaining meeting time to review and formulate new platforms for the event, presenting management with implementation suggestions. The prolonged discussion, in effect, was simply perpetuating a standard community board micromanaging process. When I called this to the attention of the Executive Director, he claimed that it is part of the nonprofit’s culture to be operationally involved.
Assuming it will take about two years for a board member to become acclimated to the new board organization, it is clear that no single director can bring about a sustainable long-term approach until his/her third year of a six-year term. There should be two or three other older directors who strongly support the change. Most importantly, the ED must see the value in it. Otherwise, it will have to wait for the appointment of a new ED that may probably take place outside of the tenure periods of current board members. Management and staff leadership who can take a broad view of the future also need to become involved.
New Genetics Include:
Growing the Future. Early adopters are critical to change. These are board members who, for example, fully understand the line between policy issues and operational ones. They can be helpful to the board chair in keeping meeting discussions out of the operational “weeds.”
Equip, empower and encourage: Allow the CEO to have full operational responsibility, with the understanding that a rigorous evaluation of quantitative and qualitative impact impacts will be reviewed each year. The board and CEO should jointly develop these issues. ** Under no circumstances should the board singularly establish them.
Assuming all these changes are in place and board members support them in their fourth or fifth tenure years. it’s then important to make sure that newer board members have a similar mindset. Some new directors who may have had experiences in other more traditional nonprofits might want to revert to the legacy operations because it is the way that “all nonprofits operate.”
Vet New Directors Carefully: Make certain new directors understand the new board environment that is being developed so they are comfortable with it. It can attract highly qualified directors and staff, with the DNA’s focus on creating sustainable long-term success. Some, however, may have quite different views. For example, I once encountered two board candidates, with social work backgrounds, who wanted to supersede management personnel and directly evaluate staff members, because they had field experience.
It takes four to five years to firmly install the new system. These environmental movements do not take place quickly. By then, the original directors leading the change will likely have termed out of their board positions. The recruitment committee will have to seek candidates who are attracted by the new environment and understand the need for substantial operational delegation to management. Most of the problems will have been eliminated from the DNA, and it should set the nonprofit on a course for sustainable success.