Board Members Listening at a Meeting

Board Time: Three Keys to Strategic Engagement

Jim Canales contributes to a new blog series on effective foundation governance.

A new BoardSource report, Foundation Board Leadership: A Closer Look at Foundation Board Responses to Leading with Intent 2017, is an effort to better understand the particular dynamics of foundation boards, and what it takes for them to be effective. As part of a blog series, BoardSource invited several foundation leaders, including Jim Canales, to reflect on the findings, and to share perspectives from their own experiences. The following is excerpted from Jim’s piece.

One of the comments I was most struck by in the new BoardSource report was, “Board meeting time should be considered a precious and limited resource that must be leveraged strategically.” Having led two foundations over the past 14 years, I can attest to the importance of being intentional and strategic about how to organize a board’s time. Here are three ideas to address this critical need:

Organize board meeting time for optimal engagement.

Foundation board meetings—indeed any board meetings—can easily be consumed by routine reports and business matters that divert the board’s attention from larger strategy considerations. BoardSource notes: “Foundation executives currently report that 40 percent of all meeting time is spent on routine reporting, which severely curtails the board’s ability to spend time discussing and deliberating on more strategic and generative issues of importance to the foundation’s work.” If we don’t ensure that we are making the highest and best use of the limited time we receive from our boards, we will not succeed in engaging them more fully in strategy matters.

Each board meeting should provide substantive time for opportunities to engage in what Harvard education professor and governance expert Richard Chait calls “generative” work, where board and staff together are wrestling with strategic imperatives. In my experience, creating this kind of space for our boards is difficult. This can be scary for board members and for professional staff, as the latter often have greater content knowledge, and we all worry about discussions going awry. However, with clarity that you are not inviting the board to do the staff’s work, but rather seeking to benefit from the board’s collective insights and wisdom early and consistently to inform strategies being shaped, I would contend the outcome will be richer and board time more fruitfully used.

Provide accessible board materials and frame discussions at the right level.

In philanthropy, we pride ourselves on rigorous analysis and high-quality written materials. Many of the board books I have read and helped to produce over the years are filled with lengthy white papers, docket memos, strategy updates, and grant recommendations. Sometimes the volume of these materials can be overwhelming, not just to those of us who produce them, but to those obligated to read them. Similarly, board sessions are often heavy on presentation and light on discussion. While presentations can be informative to board members, they may not encourage the kind of desired engagement described above.

Devoting careful attention to how materials are prepared and discussions framed in ways that enable board members to add value is a must. In another finding, BoardSource notes: “Both chief executives and board chairs report significantly lower levels of agreement on the question of whether board meetings focus on strategy and policy, with only 26 percent of executives and 33 percent of board chairs reporting that they do ‘to a great extent.’”

There is much we can do with our materials and discussions that equip the board to enter a meeting with both the right information and a solid understanding of what we need from them. I am an advocate for framing questions in advance materials that clarify what we are seeking from the board in a discussion. Of course, deft facilitation during board meetings is essential to ensuring that all voices are heard, that points of disagreement are explored, and that clarity regarding outcomes and next steps is articulated.

Broaden the board’s understanding of the foundation’s context and work.

A common critique about boards is that they “drop in” intermittently without benefit of living the foundation’s work every day. That, of course, will not change, but one way to address this legitimate concern is to devote some of the board’s time to deepening members’ understanding of the context for the foundation’s work.

In this respect, whether through retreats, site visits, or guest speaker invitations, providing board members with direct access to the foundation’s partners or beneficiaries can be a powerful way to both educate them about context and energize them about the work.

Providing board members with direct access to the foundation’s partners or beneficiaries can be a powerful way to both educate them about context and energize them about the work. Tweet This

There’s another benefit too: The context for our work is always shifting and evolving, and we would do well to balance the importance of clear strategy with the capacity to remain adaptable in the face of change. Indeed, BoardSource observes: “Effective strategy may be much more about the board’s ability to think strategically in a way that is adaptable in the face of constant change.”

Building in opportunities to benefit from outside perspectives can help the foundation to remain connected to the communities they serve and help the board to be attuned to the perspectives of partners in the field.

Foundation trustees are stewards of significant resources. They have an obligation to ensure those resources are being deployed in smart ways that advance the foundation’s mission and purpose. The suggestions above are offered in service to that goal, and what binds them together is this: Effective foundation boards have ownership for the foundation’s strategy; they understand it, they support its effective execution, and they help to improve it.

Effective foundation boards have ownership for the foundation’s strategy; they understand it, they support its effective execution, and they help to improve it. Tweet This

Such boards are also characterized by a productive partnership with their executives, grounded in mutual respect and trust. Indeed, as BoardSource notes: “Trust with chief executives that enables them to confidently engage the board in deeper, more open‐ended conversations about the foundation’s work…are essential to high‐level thinking and strategy.”

We should strive for nothing less.

This piece was originally published on the BoardSource Blog.

To learn more about the evolution of governance at the Barr Foundation, read "From Family Philanthropy to a Legacy Foundation" by Barr Board Chair, Barbara Hostetter.

comments powered by Disqus