I’m betting you’ve heard about them. It might have been in an unsolicited comment over the phone, while picking up the kids at school, or at the poolside on a lazy summer Sunday, but you’ve no doubt been told about the following organizational boards:
The ATM: “The biggest donors are put on the board. The organization does a dog and pony show for them every once in a while, just to keep the cash flowing.”
The Bobbleheads: “Those people clearly don’t get much time respect at home - they take it out at board meetings. It’s all talk and procedure.”
The Like Button: “The Executive Director has the board around his finger. He knows how to schmooze them up and they know to rubber stamp his decisions.”
While there certainly are boards that show some or all of these bad habits, the reality of what most boards are–– and, more importantly, what they’re capable of accomplishing–– is cynically obscured by such broadsides.
In reality, boards are the shared ownership of communal success.
This is not a figure of speech. Legally, the board “owns” the organization. They carry ultimate hire/fire power and are on the hook should anything go wrong. There’s significant responsibility there, although to somewhat paraphrase a childhood hero: “With great responsibility comes great power.”
Board empowerment is the first key to high performing boards, and its absence, more than any other dynamic, is responsible for poor board performance. If board members are not encouraged by the leadership and organizational staff to proactively build the organization, they’ll likely atrophy in their conference room chairs.
The success of boards can be almost directly correlated with how much and how wisely its members are empowered. A telltale sign of board disempowerment is where members can say no, but can’t say yes. Help a member find their “yes” and you will have developed a passionate organizational partner
Partners invest their personal human capital, and a broad “investment portfolio” is the second key to board success. While no organization would turn down a board member’s treasure, they often stand to gain even more from their talent and time.
Professionals that have developed deep domain knowledge, community members with wide social networks, and creatives of all stripes can bring much needed insight, innovation, and varied resources to the work of societal improvement. Just as organizations cultivate and then solicit financial investment, they should routinely be cultivating and soliciting board members to benefit from the full spectrum of their unique abilities.
The third key to success addresses an inherent structural challenge. In the effort to bring strength to its ranks, boards recruit “alpha” types: people who are professionally successful and get things done. Unfortunately, alphas can be corrosive to the fundamentally collaborative nature of committee work. That said, “death by committee” is a real danger on boards and must be combatted by strong individual action.
How to resolve this inherent tension between the powerful individual and the power of the collective?
The answer, and the third key to board success, is leadership.
Leadership has become an amorphous and overused word. Amazon offers over 57,000 books that carry the word in their title. Considering the diversity of its meanings and applications, I won’t hazard an authoritative definition for “leadership.” I will point out though, that leadership serves as the bridge between the competing energies of the individual and the collective. Well-developed and well-exercised leadership is the strong force that can hold together powerful and diverse individuals to create an exponentially enhanced whole.
If you lead or serve on a board that’s not running on all cylinders, ask yourself:
Can fellow members say “yes” in addition to saying “no”? How can I/we empower them to say “yes” more actively and emphatically?
Are we making full use of what our board members have to offer? Have we invested the time to identify each member’s complement of talents and apply those to our mission’s success?
Are we a collection of competing individuals, a uniform collective, or a forum for leadership that creates synthesis of the individuals and the collective?
The challenges facing our world in general and our community in particular are becoming ever more complex. Their resolutions demand ever greater sophistication and collaboration. Now is the time when we need to take shared ownership of our community’s future. There’s nothing boring about that!
Since his teen years, Rabbi Ozzie Burnham’s driving force has been, in his own words, to “carry the Jewish ball downfield.” With his deep passion and experience in Jewish education, Ozzie was the co-founder and Director of Education for MEOR Maryland, a Jewish outreach organization at The University of Maryland. His natural talents in strategy, systems, and communications systems led him to become MEOR National’s Director of Operations, overseeing over twenty campus branches nationwide.
In 2015 Ozzie opened Oztonish Consulting, a boutique consulting firm that helps Jewish non-profits adopt the strategies and systems of modern business so that they can achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness. Ozzie is on the board of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and on the Capital Campaign Committee for The Torah School of Greater Washington. He lives in Kemp Mill with his wife Rachel and their son Daniel.