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Get on Board: Lead Your Organization into the Future

Linda Rosenberg

Former President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health

Get on Board: Lead Your Organization into the Future

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At a time when nearly one in eight human service nonprofits is technically insolvent, effective board leadership has never been more critical. The situation is especially dire for nonprofit behavioral health organizations – their very survival and the health and well-being of the individuals they serve depends on their ability to pivot successfully in a rapidly changing health care environment. Does your board of directors have what it takes to survive and thrive? With a full slate of offerings designed for board members at NatCon18, we’ll examine some common pitfalls nonprofit boards experience and how to overcome them.

Individuals who serve on nonprofit boards willingly bring their time, talent and treasure to this rewarding and challenging task. But not all boards are created equal, and the following problems can sink a well-meaning group.

  • Lack of self-assessment. A nonprofit board that fails to assess its own performance is unable to define its strengths and weaknesses. By studying its own behavior, sharing impressions and analyzing results, the board lays the groundwork for self-improvement and organizational success. Self-assessment also enhances the board’s team spirit, its accountability and its credibility with funders and other constituents.
  • Limitless terms. Every board must accept and even thrive on change. New perspectives and different ideas keep the board and the organization moving forward. Term limits can help the board avoid stagnation.
  • Failure to cultivate board diversity. The initial board is typically made up of friends and advisors of the organization’s founder. Over time, these members reach out to their trusted friends and advisors to fill vacancies. This approach to board recruitment can lead to the “usual suspect” syndrome. Diversity refers not only to sociodemographic characteristics but also to legal, financial, communications, leadership and strategic planning expertise, among other areas. Diverse boards represent the organization’s employees, constituents and community stakeholders.
  • Knotted purse strings. Asking for and giving donations are natural aspects of being a board member in most 501(c)(3) organizations. Boards that are responsible for fundraising, yet don’t have a 100 percent personal contribution rate, have failed the ultimate commitment test. If the board is not supporting the organization wholeheartedly, how can it convince others to do so?
  • Lack of effective oversight. Board members “know” that the organization is doing great work because the executive tells them so. But how do they really know this? And if the organization exists to provide some sort of public good, and not to maximize profits, isn’t programmatic oversight just as, if not more, important than financial oversight? Boards are entitled to delegate tasks to committees, officers, staff or, in certain cases, professionals, but only if they perform sufficient oversight. It can be uncomfortable to ask difficult questions or to disagree with one’s fellow board members. However, “group think” rarely leads to sound decision-making. Often, the most valuable board members are the ones who, calmly and respectfully, speak their mind.

An effective nonprofit board of directors looks within to assess board strengths and weaknesses, attracts diverse leadership and provides financial and programmatic support. At the same time, a well-functioning board continually scans the external environment for emerging trends and potential threats.

Being a member or chair of a nonprofit behavioral health organization board of directors in today’s complex health care environment is not for the faint of heart. Mergers and acquisitions, value-based purchasing, the increasing role of private equity – these developments and more are buffeting boards and the organizations they serve.

Tell me how your board is weathering these trends. Then come to NatCon18 and join the conversation!