Focus on Boards: Ten tips on (trans)forming the Board

Getting the composition of the Board right is critical in the long run.

Getting the composition of the Board right is critical in the long run.

In this continuing series, Henslowe Irving Associate Maurice Ward takes a look at the role of the Board in a non-profit arts & culture organisation.

Forming – or transforming – a Board normally happens at a time of change for an organisation. Perhaps a number of former Trustees have resigned, or a long-serving Chair or CEO has moved on. Or it may be that the purpose of the non-profit has changed and the Board needs to adjust to the new paradigm.  Whether you’re a Chair forming a board from scratch, or transforming an existing Board in response to changed circumstances, here are ten pointers to think about.

  1. Firstly, you need or need to develop a clear vision of what the organisation will be like, what does it do, feel like, taste like and be like to all involved, i.e., the Board, managers, staff, customers, suppliers, funders etc. Often vision and mission are confused. Vision is where and what you want to be, that belongs to the Board. Mission is what you are going to do to get there and stay there, that is owned by the CEO.
  2. It is important to be clear about the role of the Board. Is it an executive decision-making body involved in the day-to-day running, or does it have more of a governance role? In the main this advice concerns Boards with a governance role for smaller organisations.
  3. The Chair will need to balance the individuals on the board. The Chair must determine what skills the Board needs or needs access to, and what variety of personality characteristics the individuals will have to make a balance. The most ineffective Boards will be those with completely like-minded people as members. It is healthy to have some challenge, disagreement and scepticism in debate provided this comes from an interest in the good of the organisation and is not either historical baggage or political manoeuvring.
  4. A balanced mix of personality types is critical for boards who wish to be effective. For an understanding of personality types, Myers Briggs is useful to inform thinking and understanding. It is rarely practicable or affordable to use it with all Board members. It should not be used for recruitment as it says nothing about abilities. It helps identify characteristic behaviours which are missing from the Board make up. A good read on the subject is the publication “Do what you are”.
  5. Having a good skill-mix on your board is essential. Sure its great to have a lawyer or accountant on the board. But boards comprised solely or mostly of lawyers and accountants will be risk-averse – not good for arts and cultural organisations.   It is difficult especially in a small organisation to measure skills. I use a model of self-evaluation and aggregate the results in a spreadsheet to identify gaps. Here’s a theatre board skills matrix example in spreadsheet form, and here’s the level guide that accompanies it, in PDF format.
  6. The size of the Board needs to be determined. Too many members take a lot of servicing. There need to be enough to cover all the skills required and ensure populated meetings, as some will be absent from some meetings. Generally 7-12 is a reasonable number for smaller organisations. Less than five can be problematic with regard to quorums or unexpected retirements. Also the length of service should be agreed and in constitutional documents. If there is not termination Boards can become ossified and moribund. A term of no more than two or three continuous years of service is suggested, renewable up to five or six years maximum.
  7. Board members should ideally not be representing any faction. The Board is not a parliament; it is there to oversee the proper management of the organisation. It is not a forum for participants to argue their corners or individual obsessions. Board members should bring the different perspectives their backgrounds and skillsets provide in order to enhance debate and decision-making. Various internal or external interests may be invited as contributors/observers when appropriate.
  8. There is a need to determine how Board members will be recruited; job descriptions for both the Chair and Board members should be developed. It is wise to avoid prospective members who want to be there for self-aggrandisement or to represent any faction.
  9. Be very clear about conflicts of interest, if they are substantial the member must leave the Board. Don’t believe the nonsense about glass walls, it’s management speak to avoid addressing the issue or to allow unhealthy political power. If you have appointed members, there is nothing wrong with considering whether the reasons they were originally appointed still hold – frequently these are historical arrangements that are no longer desirable or appropriate.
  10. Finally, ensure the Board you are developing matches the structures and protocol described in the organisation’s founding documentation – the Trust Deed, Memorandum and Articles of Association, or equivalent. If there is a mismatch, then perhaps its time to consider whether changes are possible to the founding documents. While it can be extremely difficult to change the core purpose of a non-profit, it is quite possible – and often absolutely necessary – to make amendments around the edges to address the size of the board or the tenure of trustees.

Maurice Ward is an Associate Consultant with Henslowe Irving. He has over 35 years’ experience of leading in both small and large private and public sector organisations. He is currently Chair of the Maltings (Berwick) Trust which manages The Maltings Theatre & Cinema and Berwick Visual Arts in the UK town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.  He was formerly Head of Organisational Development for the UK National Health Service Information Authority and has served on numerous boards including Amnesty International (UK).

“This series of articles is intended for those embarking upon the task of chairing or considering doing so.  It is assumed that most readers will have experience of being on Boards. There will be those who are natural-born Chairs, who may get by with charisma alone, so all or most of this will be unnecessary.  I am not a natural so I had to learn it.

The advice in this series of articles comes from a combination of formal management education, experience, making mistakes and the downside of not heeding the good advice of others.  All the advice comes from practical use and experience and not what management books or consultants tend to suggest which is often a sledge hammer to crack a walnut and is rarely fully implemented.  I use these ideas, tips and techniques on a daily basis.” – Maurice Ward

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