Boards need continuing education, orientation, center's director says


March 28, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

"A good board is a victory, not a gift."

--Cyril Houle

Having just completed a training session for a board of directors near Washington, I arranged a visit with Nancy Axelrod, the respected executive director of the National Center for Nonprofit Boards. Established in 1988, the center offers programs and services to improve the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations by strengthening their boards.

After covering some of the center's fine publications and services in past columns, I was eager to hear Axelrod's opinions on issues and trends that may face boards over the next decade.

"One of the most significant challenges facing nonprofits today is that they are being held more accountable," she said. "Americans are questioning their major institutions, so nonprofits face greater scrutiny. As a result, when things go wrong, more and more people are asking, 'Where was the board?' "

Axelrod firmly believes that nonprofit boards want to be more effective, but too few have an orientation process in place and a well-crafted continuing education program to maximize performance.

"Boards need to be more sophisticated about board-building. We're too heavy on show-and-tell, and light on what roles and responsibilities should be. We assume that once we invite someone to serve they know what to do. That is wrong," she said. "Even the most able people may not gel, and it's our job to work at making the board more effective."

In addition, boards need to know more about how other nonprofits work, according to Axelrod, so they can draw from that diverse experience in creating policies that work for them.

"In the future it will be important for boards to think of how they can evaluate the performance of the organization. Evaluation will need to be more vigorous. For example, boards need to ask what the nonprofit equivalent of corporate profit might be. How do we measure whether nonprofits are fulfilling their mission? How do we best evaluate our chief executive? And, most important, how do we evaluate our own performance as a board?"

Touching on an area that I periodically revisit in this column, Axelrod spoke pointedly about the need for a board of directors to be clear about the differences between governance and management.

"Boards need to be careful of not crossing the line into staff functions," she reports. "Even in the best of boards there will be a tension between board and staff, but the board needs to focus on governing and not meddling in daily operations."

"I think of the board as a brain trust," Axelrod says. "They are a great resource, not to be squandered. Too often there is this dysfunctional politeness among the board and between the board and staff. The steady sound of the rubber stamp is dangerous. A board needs to question current practices and continually explore more effective ways of delivering services."

Axelrod aptly points out that boards go through distinct development stages. Boards need to self-question what they may need at particular points in their life cycles. Do they need continuing education in fund raising? Do they need more internal management or training in writing effective policies?

"It's important for us to realize that board members can help to create the type of board they want," Axelrod says with some conviction.

If there are fine points to board effectiveness, Axelrod believes they lie in some basic tenets. First, when new board members are asked to serve, expectations should not be minimized. That sets a realistic framework for board service. Next, Axelrod believes that a solid board orientation and continuous training is essential. Finally, a solid committee structure is critical.

The center stocks a series of excellent publications which should form the nucleus of every board library. Included in the center's publications are a newsletter, and a series of well-written,

informative pamphlets which cover just about every aspect of board work one can imagine. Readers interested in the center and its publications or services should call (202) 452-6262.

Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at Th Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore 21202 or call (410) 783-5100.

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