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When less is more: Streamlining can make your board more flexible, focused, and forceful.

Heartspring, an organization based in Wichita, Kansas, that educates children with disabilities, had just completed a successful capital campaign. But its board was having problems. Board members were experiencing a lack of direction regarding the organization's goals and their own role for the future. Board meetings centered around committee reports, while committee structure mirrored staff functions rather than board expertise.

None of these problems constituted a crisis, but the leadership team recognized that the board was not engaging its members or making the best use of their skills. In May 2001, they instituted some decisive changes--including downsizing the board from 30 to 18 members. The board also implemented a consent agenda to take care of routine matters, so meetings could focus on vital issues. And it restructured board committees, eliminating several that duplicated the work of the staff.

"Members tell me they feel much more engaged now than they did with the larger board," says staff president Jack Andrews. "There is much greater discussion, and the discussion seems to be distributed better among all board members." Attendance has improved, too: "With the larger board, members felt their absence would not be noted or important," Andrews says. And board members now come to meetings better prepared, he adds, "since they know there are fewer who will be discussing and making decisions."

As Heartspring is discovering, streamlining the structure and operation of your governing board may lead to better meeting attendance, greater cohesion, and increased productivity. Streamlining also encourages a board to select members based on how well their strengths match the association's mission. At best, the result is a fast-moving, efficient group whose energies and abilities are concentrated in the areas of highest priority to the organization.

A balance of voice and vision

The benefits of streamlining go beyond the boardroom. Often, boards become so wrapped up in the business of the organization and its programs that they lose sight of who their constituents are and what they need. While it's true that an association's primary purpose is to serve its constituents, it's easy for a board to become sidetracked by the interests of individual members, or groups of members. Instead, a board must look at the big picture so that it can identify the needs of the membership as a whole. By refocusing its attention on the success of the field, a board can better see what opportunities exist for its members.

The importance of viewing the association as a whole means that simplifying governance may require a radical attitude shift from a constituency-based board to a vision-based board. Constituency-based boards, popular in the past 15 years, developed from the desire to bring different voices to the table--both to include a variety of perspectives and to ensure that members have the opportunity to tell the board directly what they need. In attending to the immediate needs of members, however, a constituency-based board can easily slip into the dangerous territory of micromanagement.

By contrast, a vision-based board focuses more on where the association wants to go, what it can accomplish for its members, and how it can improve the field. A vision-based board consistently examines the work of the association, and asks "Why are we here?" Then it moves forward according to the answer. A vision-based board is necessary to sustain an association's viability for the future.

Of course it is important to promote inclusiveness and to listen to your members. However, that doesn't mean you need a 100-person board, or that you must recruit members based on special interests. Inviting individuals to serve on the board solely as representatives of their age group, ethnicity, community, or specialty, rather than for their combination of skills and experience, can lead to tokenism and conflicts of interest. One alternative is to create a council of delegates or some other representational body that gives each constituency a voice with the board--but not on the board.

Incentive to change

Often, the move to restructure a board comes as a response to internal tension. That was the case with CIVICUS, Washington, D.C., an international alliance of 600 organizations dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Since 1997, the CIVICUS board had been 27 members strong. That may not seem a huge number, but it was large enough to cause problems, especially because the organization is international, and most of the board members were elected by region. Staff and logistical support for the far-flung board members proved costly, and not all board members could travel easily to meetings.

"Every time we met, the composition of attending members was different, so the dynamic was different, and we couldn't build trust," says Kumi Naidoo, secretary general and CEO of CIVICUS. The board felt hampered in its ability to act, and the clear lack of cohesiveness led some members, as well as other organizations, to view the board as dysfunctional. Moreover, when the board made decisions, it was unclear whether individual members were representing the interests of the region that elected them or working for the good of CIVICUS.

The board realized that the only way to address its problems was to change its structure. The board surveyed members, former directors, selected funders, and senior staff of sister organizations; the responses emphasized that the size of the board was less important than its effectiveness and accountability. Based on this input, the board decided in May 2001 to reduce its size to 13, a more manageable number that was still large enough to include diverse opinions. CIVICUS board chair Patrick Johnson recalls one board member commenting that asking the board to vote for downsizing was like asking turkeys to vote in favor of Thanksgiving. Board members laughed. But they did it. They also agreed to change the method of choosing board members.

Support from CIVICUS members was vital, in part because the membership had to ratify the proposed changes. Johnson and Naidoo were careful to make the change process clear to members, communicating frequently with them about the process and soliciting their feedback.

As of August 2001, criteria for CIVICUS board membership reflects "international, national, or regional status in the civil society movement and the board's needs for a diverse array of experience, talents, national, ethnic, and gender backgrounds." The new board retained seven seats for current board members, who had to run for reelection. The remaining six seats were reserved for new members. The board was encouraged by the fact that more CIVICUS members voted in that election than in any previous year, indicating their interest in the changes.

Similarly, one of America's best-known associations, National PTA, Chicago, took action after realizing that its board was in crisis. Board members, while involved and engaged in the organization's work, felt torn by the conflicting interests of their own states and the national organization. Accustomed to making decisions on a local level, they tended to micromanage, spending hours debating business card colors or other minutiae that took time away from policy discussion. And the board was too big for comfort, even after a difficult reduction in the early 1990s from 109 members to 87. "It took us a long time to make a decision," says Virginia Markell, immediate past president.

Meanwhile, other organizations that were more flexible and less steeped in tradition were springing up to meet the needs of parents, teachers, and students. The important work of the PTA was seeming less important to its constituents. "We realized that if we didn't change, we wouldn't be here next year, or at least in 10 years," says Markell.

Engaging in strategic planning helped the board understand it needed to govern, not manage. In 1999, the board adopted a new strategic plan. One of its goals-to improve "organizational effectiveness" by reducing barriers to effective decision making- catalyzed the effort to restructure the board. In June 1999, the board appointed a task force to create a more nimble, responsive governance structure. Nine months later, the task force presented the board with a proposal for radical change. It suggested reducing the board to 21 members; cutting the number of standing committees from 16 to 6; and creating a "body representative of the grassroots membership to bring issues, trends, and areas of concern to the national level."

Accomplishing this was hardly easy. The 87-member board and the 2,000 National PTA convention delegates deliberated on the merits and implications of the proposal. "We had to take some baby steps along the way," says Markell. "The members needed the opportunity to articulate our goals and values." In June 2001, the organization adopted new bylaws, amended to specify 28 board members and seven committees and to create the National Council of States. That council elects seven of the new board's members. Ten member representatives are nominated by the nominating committee and approved by the board. Six at-large members (from outside the PTA), two youth members, and three officers are appointed by the president and approved by the board.

Now the board is working to transform itself from an operating board to a governing board. Executive Director Pam Grotz hopes the significant reduction in time and money spent on governance will free up board members to engage in activities such as fundraising. "If they're successful," she says, "then we will have more money to develop more programs, and we can direct more funds into grassroots efforts," which will more directly serve parents and students.

Before moving forward, step back

Before you make any changes to your board, an essential first step is to determine your association's priorities. Reexamining your core values, mission, and strategies in light of the current environment gives your board the context and information it needs in order to create a more flexible organization that can respond to the unexpected.

Board leaders often find themselves reassessing their priorities and procedures in a time of crisis, when they discover that the board is not as responsive or effective as it should be. Of course, it doesn't require a crisis to warrant stepping back from the usual complexities of governance to take a fresh look at your association's priorities. Ask some simple questions.

* Are you hiring a new executive director? Use the transition as an opportunity for change.

* Is your board bored? An atmosphere of complacency means it's time to reassess.

* Is your association suffering from competition? Take a look at your environment to see whether you're at the front or playing catch-up.

One helpful tool is a formal self-assessment. This involves asking each board member confidentially to evaluate the board's performance in various areas, such as strategic planning, fiscal oversight, and risk management. The responses provide the board with a candid picture of its strengths and weaknesses. Still, a board self-assessment may be of limited use in setting organizational priorities, because a self-assessment focuses primarily on the board's effectiveness at governing, and not necessarily on its success at meeting the association's needs.

To better understand how well it is serving those needs, the board needs a way to measure outcomes. Outcome measurement is particularly important when a crisis or opportunity forces a board to decide what to focus on and what to leave behind. Examining the association's programs objectively requires data, not merely anecdotal evidence or opinions from board members. Outcome measurement- via a balanced scorecard, a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, or logic modeling- provides such data. Establishing a system for outcome measurement can take a long time, so it may not help to begin this at a time of crisis. Rather, invest in outcome measurement as part of your regular operations so that the system will be in place when the need arises.

Outcome measurement also has limitations as a guide for priority-setting because it addresses only existing programs-it does not identify new initiatives that may be useful for the organization in its current circumstances. To see what's missing, perform an environmental scan. Are your programs and services still reaching the intended people and accomplishing their purpose? Are other organizations doing what you do? Are there needs no one is addressing? Look at what's happening around you, and compare that with what you're doing. Then you can start to fill in the holes.

Consider smaller, smarter, stronger

Many boards, recognizing the advantages of a simplified governance structure, are moving toward reducing their numbers. How do you decide how many members your board needs? The ideal size is certainly different for each board. Here are some questions to think about when considering downsizing:

* Do board members attend meetings? What percentage attends regularly?

* Do board members feel valued or superfluous?

* How many people engage in a discussion? (The larger your board, the fewer people will be likely to participate in discussions.)

* Does the board's size contribute to or detract from productivity?

The answers should help your board settle on a number large enough to effectively and efficiently accomplish its work while keeping members feeling both valued and useful. If the board is so small that everyone's overloaded, members will burn out. If it's so large that members have little to do, they will feel superfluous and lose motivation.

The number and type of people on your board should directly reflect the expertise and perspectives your organization requires. For example, if the Association of Manufacturers of Funky Purple Hats, New York City, includes hatmakers in Europe, its board should probably include members from Paris or Milan to help the association maintain a connection to the European hat industry. The board should also include a few designers and manufacturing executives. Other skills, such as finance, legal, and public relations, should be covered as well. But this board does not need 25 members representing every single country, manufacturer, or interest.

Engage in a board profiling process to determine what your board already has and what it's missing. Areas in which you need expertise may include financial management, public relations, entrepreneurship, government relations, law, technology, or experience in your association's field. Which of these apply to you depends on your organization's immediate and long-term priorities.

To bring a wide array of perspective and skills to your association without expanding the board, consider creating task forces or committees for special projects and long-term processes. These might include individuals who are not board members. Representation of various interests may be better accomplished by creating an advisory council that the board really listens to, rather than adding to the board individuals who are expected to represent entire cultures.

A key concern about downsizing association boards is that of making the requirements for new board members clear to the membership at large, particularly if the membership elects board members. Just because the board adopts a new concept of board structure doesn't mean the association's members will accept it automatically. The people responsible for selecting the new slate must communicate effectively with the membership and find out what kind of leaders it wants. The potential disparity between the board's and membership's understanding of the new strategy also makes the role of the nominating or governance committee especially important. Members probably will not know board candidates personally, so they must be able to trust that the nominating committee has the best interests of the organization at heart.

The board should consider both how to communicate with its members and how much its members want to know. Consider a monthly or quarterly e-mail update that lets members know how the process is going, answers potential questions, directs them to a board member who can answer other questions, and assures members that things are progressing--or explains why things aren't progressing.

Committees that really work When was the last time you eagerly looked forward to a committee meeting, or were captivated by a committee report? That's not to say that committees aren't important. But in general, most organizations have too many of them, and often the wrong ones for the work the board needs to accomplish. Simplifying your committee structure can help increase both enthusiasm and effectiveness. Consider these actions.

1. Start by eliminating committees that duplicate staff work. For example, an association may have a board committee for each program initiative. These committees may do little except offer advice (sometimes unsolicited) to the staff responsible for carrying out the programs. You should also dissolve any committees that were formed when a particular project began and still linger on, with no real task, long after the project ended.

2. Use standing committees for focusing on ongoing issues. The most common standing committees are executive, governance, and finance. But not every board needs all of these. The executive committee may be redundant if it simply takes on the work of the board. This typically happens with small boards; for larger boards, the executive committee may be essential because it can be convened quickly in an emergency that requires immediate action. Even so, many organizations now call on a few board members with a broad range of expertise to come together for emergency decisions--acting as more of a task force than a standing committee.

3. Appoint task forces to oversee onetime projects such as capital campaigns and seasonal programs. Then the group can easily dissolve when the project is over. Board members and outsiders alike may be more willing to serve on task forces, knowing there is a foreseeable end to their responsibilities.

4. For each committee or task force you have or are considering creating, ask these questions:

* How does this group's purpose relate to our mission and goals?

* How will this group benefit the board and the organization?

* Who will implement its decisions?

* Could the work be done as easily by one board member working with staff, or by staff alone?

Further complicating the committee structure is the differentiation between board committees, which are part of and report to the board, and organizational committees, which work with and sometimes report to staff. Board committees should take on policy and strategic work. Organizational committees work on issues that are more closely related to programs or management. When you create committees or task forces, be sure they function in the right area.

To maintain a healthy committee structure, set measurable goals and objectives for each body. Regularly assess their progress and determine whether you should dissolve or restructure them. Amend your association's bylaws, if necessary, to allow for greater flexibility.

In general, the message here is that governance, which is always challenging, doesn't have to be complicated. Once your board has determined what its priorities are, it can focus more clearly on the work ahead. The amount of work probably won't decrease, but the number of processes and procedures required to do the work can most likely be simplified-letting you get straight to the important tasks you were chosen to do.

Sandra R. Hughes is executive governance consultant of BoardSource (formerly the National Center for Nonprofit Boards), Washington, D.C.


To start streamlining your board, here is some recommended reading.

The following publications are available from BoardSource (formerly the National Center for Nonprofit Boards), Washington, D.C. To order, go to

* The Board Meeting Rescue Kit (2001, BoardSource).

* Transforming Board Structure: Strategies for Committees and Task Forces, by Maria J. Bobowick, Sandra R. Hughes, and Bent M. Lakey (2001, BoardSource).

* The Board Building Cycle: Nine Steps to Finding, Recruiting, and Engaging Nonprofit Board Members, by Sandra R. Hughes, Bent M. Lakey, and Maria J. Bobowick (2000, BoardSource).

* Mission Accomplished? The Board's Role in Outcome Measurement (September 2001, Board Member special edition, Volume 10, Number 8).

ASAE's Publications Catalog Fall/Winter 2001 offers numerous books, background kits, and other publications to assist with board restructuring and repositioning. Available by going to or phoning 888-950-ASAE, here are just a few:

* How to Build an Effective Board, by Randall R. Richards (2000, ASAE).

* Knowledge-Based Strategic Governance (a registered trademark of Tecker Consultants, Trenton, New Jersey), a VHS video (2000, ASAE).

* The Strategic Board, by Mark Light (2001, ASAE).

* Extraordinary Board Leadership: The Seven Keys to High-Impact Governance, by Doug Eadie (2001, ASAE).
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Society of Association Executives
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Author:Hughes, Sandra R.
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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