Consortium sets the standard with its board manual


November 21, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

Few weapons in the nonprofit arsenal are as visible as the proverbial "board manual."

They can be highly potent tools or, more likely, completely ineffective. The difference lies in the details and how they are used.

What prompted my thinking about board manuals was a visit I had with Joseph Forni, the relatively new president of Combined Health Agencies of Maryland, a consortium of 23 health charities hoping to improve their fund raising and marketing. CHA is a charter member of United Way of Central Maryland.

Forni comes to CHA with strong experience in organizing boards of directors into effective committees, each charged with defining goals. and objectives. This is critical for an organization like CHA, with each of its individual agencies coming to the table with its own needs and agenda. By staying focused on common goals, the agency has begun to emerge from recent times that could be described as contentious.

Some 10 minutes into our meeting, Forni showcased CHA's new board manual. Suddenly, I have a new standard by which to judge future challengers to the crown of "Most Comprehensive Board of Directors Manual Ever Devised By Mortals." I mean, this bad boy is crammed with information and interactive devices that should help move the agency's agenda forward at warp speed.

Much to Forni's credit, no detail is overlooked. Open the cover and, there's a copy of "Robert's Rules of Order" neatly tucked into the flap. That little statement alone sure sets a tone for prospective board members, doesn't it?

Everything in the manual is color-coded, giving prospective, new and experienced board members an immediate reference point. "Everything I need to know about the organization I can find there," says board member Jim Guest, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "It's the sunshine notion; here's who we are, and all information about us is public and available."

The CHA Board Resource Manual opens boldly. In the first few hTC sections, I found a straightforward, detailed director's commitment to serve agreement, followed by an unambiguous conflict-of-interest agreement. Both require signatures by individual directors. Bravo!

"The personal commitment and conflict-of-interest agreements are important," says Guest. "It lets people know it's a real obligation they're taking on."

Following these sections is everything one could possibly want to know about the agency, its staff, volunteers, budget, aspirations and operations. All information is well-organized, presented logically, and formatted with obvious pride. The impression I was left with is of an agency that now makes a serious commitment to its volunteer leaders, a point echoed by its vice chairman, David Sachs.

"The Board Resource Manual is a great tool for orienting new directors," said Sachs, a senior vice president at Baltimore Life .. Insurance Co. "We now use it to recruit new directors and for ongoing training."

In one section is a list of all board members. For added information, each board member also appears on a board composition analysis grid, detailing her or his expertise, affiliations and community contacts.

Other sections include the agency's strategic plan, frequently asked questions about the agency, and suggestions for ways board members can overcome objections to including CHA in workplace- giving campaigns. Again, every piece of paper seems geared to helping board members excel, a fact that does not go unnoticed by experienced board members like Guest.

"Writing down the expectations and lore of the organization really helps; it's motivating to the board." Consistent with its new Board Resource Manual, CHA has also instituted a mentor program, which pairs an experienced board member with a newcomer, a process I strongly advocate. This, combined with its excellent manual, should do wonders in advancing the work of the agency. When organizations like CHA work effectively, we all benefit. Here's hoping that 1995 is a banner year for Combined Health Agencies of Maryland.

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

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