For board member's tenure, 'Three Plus Three' best

NONPROFITS INC.

February 08, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

With increasing attention being paid to the central role of the board of directors in improving the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations, many questions arise. In recent columns, I've briefly discussed issues of governance and policy, two critical areas of nonprofit management.

There are also structural issues that directly bear on the effectiveness of boards of directors. To me, few are as important as a member's length of service.

I am an advocate of the "Three Plus Three" rule for nonprofit board members. Under this policy, a board member serves an initial three-year term, after which she or he is eligible for, but not automatically given, an opportunity to serve again for another three-year term.

"How can you defend that position?" I was once asked at a board retreat where I mentioned it. Surely, there are board members who serve effectively for 10, 15, even 20 years on a board. I agree. But such effective service is the exception, not the rule, in my experience.

Most long-term board members lose effectiveness after more than a six-year stint. Besides, the Three-Plus-Three rule makes allowances for exceptionally effective board members, in a way that refreshes them at the same time.

Here's how I recommend the Three-Plus-Three service operate in the real life of a nonprofit board.

Let's assume that a person has been identified as a promising board candidate. After initial discussions with members of the nominating committee or board chair -- during which all expectations for board members are clearly explained -- the nominee accepts.

During the first year, the new member simply learns about the organization. I can't tell you how many times I've heard board members tell me that they were just thrown into an organization with no orientation. Years later, they embarrassingly come across basic information of which they were unaware.

Part of the learning process should include a board orientation manual, which provides information on the organization and what is expected of board members. But the orientation process should include more than a manual. New members should learn about the functions of the various committees, help with an event and serve on appropriate ad hoc groups.

New board members should also be assigned a mentor, a senior member of the board who can answer a new member's questions. The mentor should make every attempt to involve the new person in board business. One of the most effective ways to do this is through discussion of the board meeting agenda prior to the meeting and a debriefing afterward.

In the second year, the board member should serve on one or more committees, fully involving himself or herself in the inner workings of the organization. In the third year, the board member should be chairing a committee, serving on another, as well as helping with an event.

By the end of the third year, the nominating committee will have enough history to decide if the person will be asked to return for a final three-year term. To be asked to serve again should be considered an honor by everyone.

One side effect of this type of board development is that the nominating committee plays a much more important role in the overall growth of the board than is typical of most boards.

In the second three-year stint, the board member should serve as an officer and member of the executive committee. Other critical roles would be to serve on the nominating committee or perhaps even chair the board. Whichever route the member takes, the final year should conclude as a mentor to a new member.

This type of development shows to even the casual observer that the board takes its work seriously. Even more, a sequential development program like this can gradually change even the most entrenched nonproductive board into one that performs.

Now, what about that person who has served with excellence through all six years and is now forced to leave? Look at that person as a friend to the organization, who is now in the community, serving from outside. The network has been enlarged. While the year could be viewed as a sabbatical of sorts, there is no rule which says that the retiree can't serve as a community member on a committee, or be asked for advice.

The key to board excellence is to create a culture of caring, hard work and performance. Given a results-oriented board, that retiree will be back for another stint after a year or two sabbatical.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md. 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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