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Keeping your board fresh

Spotting the need for change

Even a board that functions effectively in the beginning can become stale or lose its focus. It can become necessary to recharge the batteries. This can involve seeking new members, up-skilling and inspiring existing members, or looking again at the goals and structures of the organisation.

Many situations can bring about a need for such a review. The environment may have changed around you, presenting new challenges that create the need for new attitudes and new reactions. There may be personal disputes among members of the board, and these relationships may lead the board down unproductive avenues. The organisation itself may have changed and may need to expand or shrink.

In all these circumstances you will need a board that reflects the needs and interests of its members, that offers the necessary skills and expertise to navigate the surrounding terrain, and that can adapt productively to change.

How to identify the need to revitalise a board

The board is the most important part of a community group, setting its directions and ensuring it stays on track is vital. If a board is dysfunctional, the community group it serves will also be in danger. And an ineffective board that cannot even get the basics right has little chance of fulfilling all of its legal and financial responsibilities, meaning the group as well as the individual board members may be heading towards trouble.

If your board can no longer provide leadership or fresh ideas, the group appears to be stagnating or money is becoming an issue, it may be time to spice things up.

Indicators that might suggest the need for change include:

  • The group has lost its way and appears to be stagnating. Membership is dropping and enthusiasm among remaining members is waning.
  • The board seems satisfied to coast. There is little future planning and no new ideas are being generated.
  • There is an imbalance in workload between board members.
  • The board no longer has the support of the group's members.
  • The board has not demonstrated a willingness to change with emerging trends that are impacting on the organisation.
  • Fundraising activities are no longer working as they used to, or as they should.
  • The size of the community group has changed and the board does not have the expertise to deal with the increased responsibility.
  • The group or the board always seems to be in turmoil.
  • Several board members are retiring.
  • The board has been in place for a long time but new members keep signing up, meaning the changing membership base and priorities of the group are no longer reflected at the top.
  • The board and staff regularly lock horns, with each party exhibiting hostility and resistance towards the other.

Do you need a change?

Change for change's sake is not necessarily a good thing. The old rule "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" has not been repealed.

Stable boards with long-serving, committed members will have the advantage of a thorough knowledge of the organisation and its mission. One could argue that if a member is long-serving, they have a lot more than a passing interest in the group and its ongoing success. They know the history of the group and know what works – if the group is still functioning well.

It is important, however, that the board represents and reflects the interests of the group and its members. Complaints are still heard that some people sit on boards until they die rather than retire graciously, although in recent times many groups have established fixed terms and guidelines that prohibit existing or past board members from serving beyond one or two terms.

Of course a certain amount of change within an organisation can also have far-reaching positive effects – even the smallest changes can stimulate or revitalise a group.

Why and how?

If you have decided that change is necessary for your board, it is important to then work out why you want change and what result you want to achieve. Merely replacing 90 per cent of your board without a clear strategy in place will do little to improve the situation – in fact, it is likely to have highly damaging effects on your group's morale and stability.

The point is to be clear of your objectives.

  • If board members are bored, why are they bored?
  • Does the organisation still play a role in the community – if not, why not?
  • Is the group's mission still being achieved?
  • If fundraising is dwindling, why is it dwindling?
  • Have you reviewed your organisation's guidelines? Does everyone and every formal body have a clear position description?
  • Do members want change at the top? If so, what changes do they want?

Once you have worked out why you want to change, you need to think about the best method for achieving the kind of improvements your board needs. Consider whether the problem is with organisational structures or whether the problem is with the people who fill the positions (it may, of course, be both). Consider:

  • Do you need to replace board members or do you need to make only slight operational changes?
  • Does the board need to take a more strategic approach to the way it recruits new members?
  • Does the board need to communicate better with community group members and other stakeholders?
  • Is there a need for new policies and/or procedures to provide greater guidance for the board?
  • Is there a need for better board-staff relations?
  • What will happen if you change the board meeting structures? Less/more meetings? Shorter/longer meetings? Change locations of meetings?

Making the change

Now it's time for the hard part. The first and most important task is to get the board to the point where it can bring about its own regeneration. It is a good idea to draw up a plan to involve all members in the process of change – that way, they are more likely to feel ownership of the process and less likely to resist any changes that need to be made. The process of change can be slow or sudden, cosmetic or extensive – the approach taken will depend on how dire the situation is and how much resistance is encountered.

If the board cannot be led to acknowledge the problem, then the only way to bring about reform is to use the election procedures to change personnel. This can be damaging to organisational cohesion and morale, and should be undertaken only as a last resort.

Some less painful methods of achieving regeneration include:

  • Asking existing board members and community group members to identify what changes they would like to see occur.
  • Reviewing the organisation's goals and strategies to ensure they reflect the current and future priorities of the community group.
  • Reviewing all policies and procedures, including meeting rules and structures, to remove irritations and inflexibilities.
  • Instituting training procedures to help committed board members to update their skills and become more acquainted with their governance responsibilities.
  • Undertaking an educational process to ensure that board and staff members are aware of their differing responsibilities and committed to maintaining those divisions. (More information about board-staff responsibilities is contained in the Board-Staff-Volunteers help sheet.)
  • Holding informal functions to give board members the chance to meet and get to know each other outside the tense environment of the boardroom.
  • Taking a more strategic approach to board recruitment, including putting in place a recruitment strategy and setting up a recruitment committee if one does not already exist. (More information on this process is contained in the Finding new board members and Recruiting new board members help sheets.)
  • Making sure that the induction of new board members directs their attention to the real requirements of the role; there is no use having new members if they are simply co-opted by the old members to carry on in the old ways. (More information on induction is contained in the Developing an effective induction process help sheet.)
  • Ensuring material prepared to support the board in its decision-making process is timely and relevant.
  • Improving communication channels, both between board members and between the board and the rest of the organisation. This could involve opening meetings to the broader group membership, developing a small newsletter to explain board decisions or providing opportunities for group members to speak with board members.

Obviously the approach you take and the regeneration methods you use will depend on the type of change required and the particular culture of your organisation and its board.

How to ensure your board stays energised

If you pay close attention to board appointments you are half way to having a healthy, vital board. Naturally, maintaining excellence takes a lot of hard work and commitment.

Tips for maintaining an enthusiastic board:

  • Undertake an annual board review. Try using a small, confidential survey requesting feedback, ideas, and recommendations for the future. Consider putting in place a committee to manage this process.
  • Be sure that roles within the board are clearly defined, and that each member is absolutely clear about the organisation's goals, mission and ethics.
  • Ensure boardroom procedures are effective and efficient. If they don't suit those on the board, change them.
  • Take plenty of time to recruit board members. The right people ensure a strong and effective board.
  • Be committed to a diverse and representative board. (See the Achieving the right mix help sheet for more information on diversity strategies.)
  • Pay attention to the needs and morale of board members: are they satisfied? If not, try job sharing or swap some responsibilities with other board members.
  • Expect a high standard, and hold people accountable.
  • Make full use of your board members' skills and expertise.
  • Ensure that the workload of all board members is comparable: lack of involvement leads to boredom, overwork leads to burnout.
  • Let the board know of progress in the organisation or excellence among members and staff. Keep the board informed about and interested in the organisation.
  • Determine an appropriate length of service for your board members (and look to new members rather than simply re-appointing the old).
  • Recognise board decisions that are successful. People tend to look to the board in a time of crisis, but do not necessarily give it credit in the good times.
  • Keep the organisation informed of board decisions, and make the board accessible so a great divide does not occur between members/volunteers/workers and the board.
  • Implement a mechanism to allow members to have their say or to suggest ideas for the organisation.
  • If a board member leaves prior to the expiry of their term, find out why to ensure that any concerns they may have with the organisation are addressed.
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