How staff can support their board of directors

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The board of directors is elected by members and the board is accountable to the members. boards delegate the implementation of their policies and plans to staff and committees, but the board remains accountable to members for the outcomes. They cannot delegate their authority and accountability.

This is an important responsibility and staff can take a number of critical steps to support the board. This article reviews some of the key steps. In most organizations, the Chief Staff Officer or CSO (Executive Director, Registrar, etc.) is the liaison to the board. Thus, the steps described in this article could be taken by a staff team led by the CSO.

1. Create a tactical plan to support the board's strategic plan and budget

High performance not-for-profit organizations work from a strategic plan and budget approved by the board of directors. In order to ensure that staff have the capacity and resources to implement the strategic plan within the related budget, staff should create a tactical plan to support the strategic plan and budget.

The tactical plan describes what actions staff will take during defined time periods to perform their duties as required by the strategic plan. This enables the board to understand how and when work will be done by staff to achieve the objectives and targets set out in their strategic plan.

Inevitably, unforeseen circumstances will change staff work priorities and if this results in a significant redirection, then the tactical plan needs to be revised and shared with the executive director and/or board. Individual staff members should have job descriptions that match their role in delivering the strategic plan. Staff should provide written updates to the person they report to about circumstances where they are off target with their part of the tactical plan. This should include solution options if this is a result of "problems".

2. Draft board terms of reference

High performance organizations provide their board volunteers with written terms of reference. This helps to convey what is required from the board as a team. The document should include information on:

  • Board composition
  • Length of term
  • Who the board is accountable to
  • What the board's key roles and responsibilities are (indicate bylaw item reference)
  • What authority the board has
  • Staff liaison

While staff can draft the board's terms of reference, it is essential that the board approve the final version and own its contents.

3. Draft board job descriptions

Board members appreciate knowing what is expected of them. A job description sets out the roles and responsibilities of individual board members. This should include:

  • Arriving prepared for meetings by reviewing all briefing materials.
  • Being familiar with your organization's bylaws, policies and procedures, strategic plan, etc.
  • Attending all meetings, participating in all teleconferences and reviewing and, where appropriate, responding to all e-mails.
  • Supporting board decisions once they have been voted on and keeping board discussions confidential
  • Acting in the best interest of the organization (not self interest or in the interest of a group one is representing on your board).

4. Draft board evaluation materials

In a recent survey of associations we conducted in partnership with Jack Shand, President of LeaderQuest, we found that only half of the organizations surveyed conduct annual board evaluations. A board evaluation can be a written questionnaire or a phone interview. Another approach is to use a self-evaluation tool where board members rate themselves and the board as a team against best practices. Facilitators are available to assist and ensure confidentiality of individual responses.

Some boards conduct an informal evaluation at the end of each board meeting, asking participants to provide verbal feedback on how effectively they felt the board worked as a team during the meeting and whether they felt the meeting was a good use of their time. This can also be accomplished by a written questionnaire which the chair (or staff) compiles.

There is not just one right way to conduct board evaluations and it is important that the board measures its performance on a regular basis so it can improve.

5. Prepare strategic agendas

It is recommended that the most important discussion items be dealt with early on the agenda. This will likely include financial matters. Effective meetings are usually ones where all of the background information and recommendations are provided to board members well in advance of the meeting. This enables board members to discuss the recommendation knowing the same set of key facts, allowing everyone to start the discussion on the same page.

If you use a strategic plan, it may work well for you to use your key strategic goals as agenda item titles. That way, you will have discussed an issue in the context of how it serves your mission and strategic plan. If a topic does not fit under any key strategic goal, then you have an objective way to decide whether that issue should be dealt with at the board level or considered by staff or a committee or task force who could bring forward a recommendation.

6. Coach board members who chair committees

Just as parents do not have to be trained to qualify, people do not have to be well-versed in how to effectively chair a meeting to get elected or appointed. In order not to bruise any egos, it is recommended to have a third-party expert coach your committee chairs on how to run an effective meeting. Another approach is to provide written literature on how to run effective meetings to your incoming chairs. You can access articles from the CharityVillage Research Library, or on the Solutions Studio web site.

7. Draft board agreement materials

A number of organizations require their board members to sign "agreements" to signify that they agree to honour approved procedures that relate to:

  • Code of conduct
  • Conflict of interest
  • Organization's values
  • Policies and procedures/bylaws
  • Confidentiality
  • Privacy compliance
  • Competition law

From a risk management perspective, this is a wise move. However, you may need to provide the board with workshops to review these agreements in order to be certain they really do understand how your organization conducts its business.

8. Plan board appreciation opportunities

Board teams deserve to be recognized and appreciated; they give their talent and time. Most organizations list their board members in their annual report and on their web site; some do so on their letterhead. However, a list of names on its own does not effectively convey sincere appreciation.

When recognizing the board, explain what it is that THEY did that deserves praise and recognition. As you consider your appreciation activity options, ask yourself, "Is this what they would value?" Some active volunteers have lost interest in their collection of not-for-profit paperweights.

Questions? Happy to hear from you at or 1.877.787.7714.

Paulette Vinette, CAE, is President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on helping not-for-profit organizations.

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