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Brave new board: reinvigorating governance to reach unprecedented goals.

BIG BROTHERS BIG SISTERS OF AMERICA (BBBSA), PHILADELPHIA, IS ON A ROLL, which may be a bit surprising to many observers in the not-for-profit world.

Just a few years later, the national board of BBBSA is talking about serving I million children by 2010 and is well on its way to achieving that goal. Why has this remarkable change been taking place? And what role has, the national board played in this transformation? Some of the answers to these questions can be found in a process that reinvingorated the national board of BBBSA-- and that is transferring that same energy into has local agencies across the United Stated.

Begun in 1904 to help troubled youth, the organization grew steadily during subsequent decades, but by the 1990s it was at a plateau, serving about 85,000 children through 500 agencies covering all 50 states. While BBBSA had the reputation of being the nation's premier mentoring organization-- providing adult volunteers to develop quality relationships with children, mainly those being raised by single parents--it seemed to have peaked in its ability to serve more children.

Winds of change

From the 1970s to the mid-1980s, BBBSA was largely a collection of local agencies with local boards that looked to the national office's lean staff and to the national board itself much as ships of old looked to the North Star--helpful in establishing direction but otherwise quite remote.

Entering the 1990s, local agency boards and staff leaders wanted to become more involved in influencing the national agenda, and the national board began to evolve into a more constituency-driven entity. At-large directors, who had historically been a major influence on the national board, were supplemented across time with 15 elected members whose role was to represent regional groupings of agencies and the national organization of professional staff. Finding common ground was sometimes troublesome when dealing with specific issues.

However, in the mid-1990s, BBBSA National Executive Director Tom McKenna showed great leadership in launching an extensive research project to measure the effectiveness of the BBBSA mentoring program and the winds of change began to blow more vigorously. And with them, the national board began a steady transformation into a reinvigorated board, motivated to reach significant new goals.

A research study, conducted by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), Philadelphia, validated BBBSA's long-held belief in the power of mentoring. That confirmation began a strategic planning process that focused not so much on the number of children currently being mentored or the incremental number that might be served in subsequent years but on the total scope that the organization's mission mandated: the 10-15 million single-parent children in need of mentoring. With this expanded mind-set, in the late 1990s, BBBSA staff leaders and some members of the national board began to talk more boldly about growth--dramatic growth, such as doubling the number of children served during the next three to four years.

McKenna then pushed to link this goal to America's Promise, the effort led by Colin Powell to expand the impact of volunteerism on society. It wasn't long before an ever-growing cadre of true believers from all levels of the organization--staff, volunteer leadership, and members--emerged to lead the surge of growth that would carry the entire BBBSA organization to a level of service barely dreamed about in the past.

Board members began thinking big. They asked questions like "How can we serve more kids nationally?" Thinking small--"How is this or that idea going to be accepted at my local agency?"--went out of style rather fast. The transformation from a constituency-based board to a vision-driven board took place--at some point, almost through osmosis--before anyone even began to use those labels to describe the process.

The definitive touch occurred in 2000. When updating the strategic plan, the mind-blowing goal of serving 1 million children by 2010 was presented. The new BBBSA president and CEO,

Judy Vredenburgh, who had accepted the top job in 1999, played a major role in this breakthrough. She had the vision to see beyond the five-year horizon and recognized the tremendous motivational value of a goal like 1 million mentors. She also sensed that the results of the P/PV studies, combined with the growth being achieved under the broad initiative of America's Promise, gave BBBSA an opportunity to raise the necessary amount of money nationally and locally. What might have in the recent past been considered a pipe dream took on the stature of doability. Serving 1 million kids was not just desirable--it could be done.

A key element in achieving this growth is developing and achieving major breakthroughs in fundraising and improved efficiencies. The cost to support a match has traditionally been about $1,000. This meant that when BBBSA was serving 100,000 matches the aggregate budget of all BBBSA organizations was about $100 million. At I million matches, the forecast is that $800 million will be needed to sustain operations. So far, the financial plan is working but everyone realizes that there are steep mountains ahead. Every element in the plan--foundations, corporations, events, and so forth--has to grow, but the greatest growth is to come in building the base of individual donors in terms of total numbers, annual gift size, and longterm commitments.

As the board began concentrating on implementing the strategies of the new plan, the ideas were clearly working into the thoughts and goals of people throughout the BBBSA organization-from the national board and staff to the boards and staffs of local agencies-who not only began believing in the goals but also felt strongly that "We've got to do it for the kids."

Setting the stage

With the explosion of the new million-match goal on the scene, we inevitably began to look at the board itself and what changes would be needed. I had chaired the planning committee in the 1990s and chaired the CEO search committee in 1998-1999. Then in 2001 our Board Chair Bob Wood asked me to head up a board governance task force, made up of nine key board members, to figure out how the national board's role might be redefined. After getting agreement on the objectives of the task force, our next major step was to conduct a rather simple board assessment. (See sidebar "Short Assessment: LongRange Impact.") The results of this self-rating set the stage for change, indeed rather radical change. The overall consensus of the task force was that on a scale of 1 to 10--1 being lowest and 10 being highest--the board deserved a score of 4. This came as a shock, as did the news that we needed to focus more on strategy and resource development and much less on the trivia often contained in committee reports. We also got feedback that the overall meeting format needed to be drastically overhauled. In short, we were functioning more like a board that was serving 100,000 children than one trying to grow to serving 1 million children by 2010.

Under Wood's leadership, the board began to take its own medicine well. It decided to shoot for a self-rating of at least seven within the next year and nine within two years. In the meantime, the board generally agreed that dramatic improvements could be made quickly if everyone pulled together to implement some of the more straightforward solutions recommended in the self-assessment exercise. Some of the recommendations became part of a nearer-term strategy for improvement:

* The board must set a goal to act more as a functioning enterprise, not merely as a representative federation. It has to become more strategic, more decisive, and more demanding of high performance from its members.

* The board's primary focus should be on achieving the BBBSA strategic plan and serving I million children by 2010. This has to be the driving force behind virtually all of the board's efforts.

* Significant upgrades in both at-large and regional officer board members must occur. Meaning, we have to find people with access to greater spheres of influence and affluence. However, the board size should either be smaller or not increased from its present level, which is hovering around 45 members. Therefore, low-performing current hoard members should not be carried forward.

* All board members must be challenged to produce (or else). Performance expectations must be made clear and must be measured. Every board member must realize that his or her role is being kicked up a few notches.

* Gaining access to vital resources, such as money and volunteers, should be stressed as a key responsibility of all board members. Several new board members should be added who have access to the resources of corporations, foundations, and individuals (including their own resources).

* BBBSA staff needs to reach out and engage board members much more often between board meetings, particularly on fundraising and volunteer recruitment initiatives, implementation of strategies at the local agency level, or for tasks that draw on each board member's special talents or access.

* Board meetings should focus on a few key strategic issues and engage the members in resolving those issues and in developing strong follow-up plans.

* Committee structures need to be reassessed, especially in the context of our strategic plan. Each board committee as reconstructed should then have clear objectives, which are interlinked with each other, and the progress toward achieving these objectives should be measured regu[arly.

* The BBBSA staff support to each board committee needs to be strengthened, and committee chairs need to assert their leadership more over how their committees function. The goal is to develop a strong board-staff partnership.

Moving into action

Soon after the results of the self-assessment (as partially outlined in the preceding bulleted points) had been summarized, I moved into the role of board chair (June 2002), with our CEO closely aligned in our respective leadership roles. We then reached out to board members to get additional personal feedback on how best to upgrade the board's performance.

Acting on this feedback coupled with the action points that came out of the assessment, we achieved results that were rather astounding. We made a concerted effort to add new talent to the board, while revamping board activities and format. The number of board committees was reduced, new chairs and vice chairs were selected, national staff liaisons were established and trained to serve their respective committees, and the format and focus of the board and committee meetings were completely made over. Everything was tied back to the priorities called out in the strategic plan. The focus was on the future. The past was passe.

Change can often be difficult but it need not be. People like to be a part of change if they see clearly the broad goals and sense that they personally can play a key role. My job as board chair was to carry that message, in writing or in person, to groups and individuals and to engage others in the same process. The most important person, of course, was our CEO, Judy Vredenburgh, who has performed superbly 24/7 in her leadership role. Strong support from the immediate past board chair, Bob Wood, has also been very helpful.

Strengthening the board. We took a serious approach to board composition and recruitment. The first step was to take an inventory of the existing board and fill in the gaps that existed in terms of the total board strength that we were looking for. When we began this process, we identified certain people who we knew had the skills we sought; we made sure that everyone knew this goal and that on an ongoing basis everybody on the board is responsible for board development. Lots of people started contributing names of potential board members. We threw out a huge net and after identifying the best candidates, we discussed the best way to get through to them. We found that it was best to meet face-to-face, explain what we were looking for, and listen to the person s responses. If the situation looked promising, we continued contact and began to try to develop a passion in that person for our mission. We made efforts to cultivate a relationship before asking the person if he or she would be willing to serve on the board. We believed that after a meeting like this it was wise to go back and confirm that the person would be willing to make such a commitment.

Leveraging staff strength. In my many years of service with BBBSA, I realized that as good as board members might be, most did not have a thorough understanding of how to make a nonprofit organization work. But the staff does know. So part of our new approach was to make sure that the staff was closely involved with the board, particularly at the committee level. To that end, I ran two training sessions for the staff on how to work with the board. So far, the results have been encouraging.

Another significant turning point was in the culture that existed between the national and local groups. For many years, we had a we-they culture. But with the increased interaction of the national organization and local agencies, we are turning this around. We've worked more closely with the local agencies--particularly those in pilot programs--and that has not only increased our communication, but it has motivated the local groups to get behind our enhanced mission and realize how great the results will be if we succeed. They also know that they must perform, so it keeps them focused on priorities.

Revamping the functioning of the board. The input from the board assessment made it clear that big changes had to be made in format and function of the board. Board members used to serve on several committees, which met for one and a half days each quarter, including a board meeting that wrapped up in about one hour for those board members not already in a cab on the way to the airport. The content of the committee and the board meetings had ranged from major to minor issues, strategic to trivial, often driven by the voice of a particular member who was passionate on a point. As of June 2002, we could all see that this had to change and it did.

Now the board meeting begins at 9 a.m. and is over by 11:30 a.m. There are only two or three highly strategic items on the agenda. Each requires a lot of advance preparation. Presentations are made, but discussion is encouraged. Board members have a lot of dialogue, usually at high levels of content and sensitivity. Discussions are summarized, votes are taken, and follow-up actions are established.

From 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., the committees meet. Each committee has a well-developed set of objectives and tries to stay focused on them. The committee leaders and the staff liaisons function as a team in the meeting and in prescribing the follow-up actions. Between these heady discussions, the committee members wolf down a sandwich lunch and by 1 p.m., most board members are on their way. However, the executive committee--consisting of the committee chairs, the vice chairs, the past national board chairs, the CEO, and me--then meets to share feedback with each other, identify linkages in their work, and generally brainstorm hot issues that have emerged during the morning. The executive committee also critiques the entire day's activities and discusses the possible topics for the next quarterly meeting. By 2 p.m., all matters are wrapped up and another fleet of cabs are rolling to the airport.

The shorter, strategically focused meetings have huge appeal to the heavy hitters on the board and the ones that we are trying to attract. Inevitably, some of the longer serving board members say that they miss the previous format, which allowed for more social interaction among board members. But these observations are heard less as some decide that the time has come for them to step down.

Rapid progress

Renewed energy and passion for our mission is breeding success. From serving about 85,000 children in the mid1990s, BBBSA expects to be serving close to 300,000 by the end of 2003 and is learning the secrets of fast growth better each year. In 2002, for example, a pilot group of agencies, using state-of-the-art best practices, grew by about 28 percent compared to the previous year (in terms of matches made). The national board is also getting into the swing of things--big time. This past year, one board member issued a challenge. He committed to making a special $250,000 gift if the rest of the board all gave and their collective sum exceeded his challenge Figure. For the first time ever, 100 percent of the board members made contributions, and more than $550,000 in special funds were raised.

Lessons learned

What can other boards learn from the BBBSA success so far? First, you must have a powerful mission and ambitious goals. You need to challenge board members constantly, and you need to stroke them when they perform. You must also have a strong CEO, who board members believe in. And the upgrading of board members themselves must be an ongoing process. Finally, never forget for one moment that high-performing boards require lots of work--by the board chair, the CEO, the informal leaders on the board, and the committee chairs and vice chairs and their staff liaisons. But who minds doing the hard work when the results are so satisfying?

Eyes on the future

In June 2004, BBBSA will hold a gala conference in New York City, celebrating its 100 years in business. President Bush has been invited as the featured speaker. His strong belief in mentoring was made clear in his 2003 State of the Union address and the legislation proposed thereafter based on his words: "We can change this nation, one child at a time."

The national board is already pointing to the June 2004 date as a time when it will be able to look in the mirror and say, "Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is not only the premier mentoring organization in the country, but it also has one of the premier national boards." It also wants to be able to look out at the 500 local agency boards and see that they, too, have undergone dramatic changes in recent years. Several are already reshaping their boards to focus mainly on strategy and resource development and to bring on as members community leaders of influence who think big and are determined to bring their agencies to scale. (See companion article, "Incubating a New Model of Service Delivery.")

The year 2010 may seem a long way off to many people in the not-for-profit world. But to everyone involved with BBBSA, whether at the national or the local level, it's the time when we will all know that it's been worth the effort. We will be taking great pride in having served several hundred thousand children during the first decade of the 21st century who would never have been reached if we had not started to think big back in the 1990s. But I suspect that well before 2010 is reached, a new rallying cry will be emerging throughout the BBBSA organization. They'll be wondering how to get to a new goal of serving 2 million children and how to build the kind of national board that can lead the organization to these new levels of service to children in need. That's when we'll know that the greatest value in setting an ambitious goal is not in achieving it but in positioning the organization to set an even more ambitious goal for the years ahead.



More than a million nonprofit boards can be found across the United States. Many do not reach their potential because of poor leadership. Often warning signs indicate that a board is not functioning properly. For example, it may be clear that the board does not consist of the right number or type of people; the board may spend too much time on trivial matters; or the board chair may hesitate to lead the board in a self-assessment to identify its shortcomings. These and other signs may indicate that it's time to reawaken energy and focus it on the mission of the organization. Following are some key ways to achieve such revamping.

1. Encourage board members to tell each other what motivates them to serve. Trustees need to remind themselves why they joined the board. You might even want to have board members sign an annual affirmation of their commitment to the organization to raise their consciousness. This can also allow them to step off--with no hard feelings--if they realize they can no longer commit.

2. Educate board members about the organization and their responsibilities. Start with a good orientation that includes the organization's history. Then, train board members in good governance principles and effective group decision-making processes. Be sure to educate board members about the programs--especially their connection to mission and results--so that they can make informed decisions about them and fundraise better.

3. Hold the board accountable for its own performance and conduct a candid board assessment. Use a self-assessment tool (such as the one that BoardSource or an objective outside consultant. The executive committee or governance committee should lead the assessment and board development planning process. Board chairs should meet regularly with other board members to ask what their satisfaction levels and goals are and how the overall board is performing. Based on the assessment, develop a plan for board development.

4. Compel the board to continually plan for the future and focus on results. One of the most important responsibilities of a board is to help the organization plan for the future. Boards need to conduct scans for environmental changes and create visions that respond to those shifts. The strategic planning process can be reinvigorating and help board members to work together better as a team.

5. Infuse board meetings with more meaning. Once the plan is done, develop board-meeting agendas that correspond with the goals in the plan to keep meetings focused on the important priorities. Concentrate on making decisions at meetings and avoid one-way communication from staff. Use consent agendas to lump together routine matters that might not require lots of attention. End board meetings with an appraisal of how the meeting went and a discussion of what to cover at the next meeting.

6. Add some new board members and graduate some existing ones. Begin by having the executive or nominating committee determine whether the board needs to become bigger or smaller. If the board needs new members, have the committee identify board composition needs and then strategically fill slots. Cast a wide net for underrepresented groups to ensure diversity and try to seek younger up-and-comers, rather than over-committed heavy hitters. If the board needs to shrink or you need to get rid of underperforming board members, consider using term limits or required rotation. You might want to develop a board alumni council to keep former board members involved.

7. Nuture future leadership. Board leaders should consciously mentor the next generation of leadership. All new board members must have the potential for assuming a leadership role during their tenure. Use committees as a way to provide opportunities for emerging leaders to take on more responsibility. Consider having multiple vice chairs so that you aren't stuck if one can't become chair.

8. Develop a synergistic board-CEO partnership. A good CEOboard chair relationship is like a good marriage: It is based on mutual respect, trust, commitment, and effective communication. Board and executive leadership need to work together to plan, set agendas and policies, act as ambassadors for the organization, and raise money. The CEO needs to be involved in any board development process, and the board chair must be kept abreast of major developments in the CEO's areas of responsibility.

9. Consider alternative models for governance. Some say that conventional models for nonprofit governance may be broken, so trying to improve board performance within this context is like putting a Band-Aid on a huge wound. You might want to consider replacing typical models of governance with alternative ones. Some boards have eliminated committees and, instead, use ad hoc work groups that are time-limited and outcomes-focused. During the past decade, the John Carver policy-governance model has become more popular; it prescribes smaller, more disciplined boards that focus on policy means and ends and delegate more to the CEO. Other alternative models are non-hierarchal and consensus-oriented and structured like a cooperative, in which staff members participate and help lead the board.

Paul Connolly is senior vice president, The Conservation Company, New York City, a consulting firm that specializes in nonprofit governance, management, and strategic planning. E-mail:

Joe Connolly is the national board chair of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Philadelphia, and is in his third decade of volunteer service with the organization. He also serves as mayor of Jupiter Island, Florida. Fax: 772-546-0695.
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Author:Connolly, Joe
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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