GRAND RAPIDS — The ability of many nonprofits to successfully meet their missions can be directly tied to those who sit on their boards.
That’s according to Tamela Spicer, program manager at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, which launched a new initiative that aims to help nonprofits that face challenges in meeting their established board objectives.
The Ecosystem for Nonprofit Leadership initiative came about after clients of the Johnson Center shared that they were struggling to create diversity on their boards and provide good experiences for board members, Spicer said. National research bears out that these issues are common for boards across the country, she added.
“This conversation had been bubbling up for a while and we got serious and did intentional interviews about this a couple of years ago,” Spicer said. “We interviewed people who served on boards and those who didn’t, and we interviewed nonprofit leaders and asked them to share their experiences.
“This ecosystem experience was birthed out of hearing similar stories. We thought that this is a challenge, so why not look for a community solution rather than working with one organization at a time.”
Nonprofits don’t operate in a vacuum, Spicer said, and the initiative will provide them with information on developing a pool of individuals who want to serve on their boards, in addition to identifying leadership training opportunities available through different organizations in the community.
“This will open up a pipeline by creating more opportunities for people to be trained,” Spicer said.
For many of the 35 years that Paul Knudstrup has been providing consulting services and expertise to the nonprofit sector, board development has remained a frequent topic of concern and conversation.
“One of the things we don’t tend to do enough of is thinking through the process of identifying potential board members and bringing those folks along in terms of involvement with the organization,” said Knudstrup, founder and president of Midwest Consulting Group Inc. in Kalamazoo. “Sometimes we see boards that end up with insiders, some of whom have been on the board for 20 years. I always recommend terms because I think it makes sense for people to have turnover on their board.”
As a way to increase diversity on boards, some nonprofits require that recipients of the group’s services are provided a seat at the table, Knudstrup said, noting that having a diverse board makeup is very important.
“In order to understand the population they’re serving, they need to have a broader representation,” Knudstrup said. “In a lot of situations, nonprofit boards default to large corporations because those kinds of organizations have instilled board service in their leadership development processes so that serving on a nonprofit board is expected of you.”
Expanding the pie
For some companies, this expectation for employees — particularly people in leadership positions — remains in place, Spicer said. As an example, she cites the Ada-based direct-selling giant Amway Corp., a longtime partner of the Johnson Center that has done board certification training for its employees.
Increasingly, the pool of potential nonprofit board members has been opened up to include people at all organizational levels, something that is also occurring with Chemical Bank, which encourages all of its employees to serve on boards, according to Spicer.
“Nonprofit leadership often has a tendency to say, ‘We need top management or people with deep pockets.’ They traditionally think of leaders to serve on their boards,” Spicer said.
While those qualities remain important, they are not exclusive to individuals in traditional corporate leadership roles, she said.
“Perhaps there’s room for someone not even in management yet. We may have overlooked them because they’re not in traditional leadership roles,” Spicer said. “But leadership comes in many different forms. It’s not always about someone’s position, experience or place.”
The Johnson Center partnered with Ferris State University and a handful of West Michigan organizations on the Ecosystem for Nonprofit Leadership initiative. The program aims to drive conversations about rethinking the status quo of nonprofit boards and understanding what diversity can and should look like. Spicer said these conversations need to take place to figure out a model that creates change.
National research indicates that despite attempts to diversify, most boards are not diverse.
“It starts with every organization having the conversation about what diversity means and how they represent the community they are serving,” Spicer said. “We have a tendency to stop it at people of color or sexual orientation, but there are many facets to diversity.
“We have to be able to think broader than that, which will challenge some of us.”
Executives at the Johnson Center who will be working on the ecosystem project are in the process of identifying the necessary competencies to serve on a board and what those best practices look like. This fall, they will begin interviewing organizations identified as offering good board experiences to ultimately share those best practices with nonprofits that want to improve their boards.
Spicer said a steering committee is working on a two-year plan for the project.
“We will be putting some things on our website and encouraging people to reach out if they have had a good board experience. We also will be asking people what their experience has been and finding those bright spots to replicate,” she said.
Knudstrup said identifying and sharing best practices for nonprofit boards should prove valuable for organizations.
“The percentage of nonprofit boards that function at a high level is, in my opinion, very low,” Knudstrup said.
He defines a high-functioning board as one in which people are connected to the mission of the organization and do their homework. Typically, these board members are connected enough within the organization to understand the appropriate level of involvement.
“I find that a lot of nonprofit boards tend to get into the weeds of operation more than they should,” Knudstrup said. “If the board isn’t engaged, which I think often happens, they recruit board members by saying all they have to do is come to a meeting once a month. Often the executive director doesn’t keep the board informed about issues and problems that really ought to have some oversight.”
Given that most Michigan nonprofits are small organizations with budgets of less than $1 million, Spicer said it’s not unusual for board members to engage in other volunteer service. Regardless of their size, she said every board has a legal institutional responsibility.
“They function at a governance or managerial level where they work in committees and as individual board members at a technical level where they can offer their expertise,” Spicer said. “For large institutions like Grand Valley State or the hospitals, there’s a lot of staff and they might not need their boards to do that type of work. Smaller organizations need to equip themselves with committees and individuals to do the managerial work. It really just depends on the organization.”
Spicer hopes the new initiative will bring best practices to the forefront that will help many organizations, regardless of size.
“We sit within this broader ecosystem where if we’re going to do our work well, we have to do it together,” she said. “We can’t do this alone.”
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