Because There's No 'I' in 'Board'


Everyone knows the old adage "there's no 'I' in 'team'." We often tell it to our children when they first learn to play soccer or t-ball. It's a fundamental value of sportsmanship to put the group's objectives ahead of one's own personal success. In sports this value helps prevent "show-boating" and curbs the adverse effects of "star players." In the context of nonprofit board governance, this value has a more existential meaning.

While governing boards are composed of several members, they act as a single body and are required to speak with one voice. When boards operate, they have to integrate individual perspectives, opinions and ideas to come to consensus about a whole host of issues pertaining to the nonprofit's mission and operations. Doing this demands cooperation, trust and a sense of shared purpose - all elements that make up a solid team.
Photo: Jo Panuwat D / Adobe Stock

And yet, it's not uncommon for individual board members to see themselves - or be seen -as star players. Perhaps there's a major donor who feels compelled to drive discussions and priorities. Or perhaps a high profile director is so busy they barely participate - either because they are overloaded or they don't see a need to spend much time on board work. Sadly, there are a number of dated assumptions out there perpetuating the idea that personal agendas, non-participation and even out-right dysfunction are unavoidable conditions for nonprofit boards to operate in.

When boards recognize internal dysfunction or sub-optimal participation from members, it's a good idea to establish (or perhaps reaffirm) clear norms and expectations for how the board should function as a team. Governance Committees are usually best positioned address this issue by leading processes such as board member evaluation, board self-assessment and board member orientations. Bringing in an outside facilitator to provide education and help guide the process is also a good way to develop the board's team identity.

That said, individual board members still have great potential to influence the board toward embracing a team identity. Here are some simple ways you can lead by example:
  • Learn everything you can. Understand the nonprofit's history, bylaws, policies. Get to know the CEO and staff. Engage directly in the organization's programs and activities. Cultivating deep knowledge of the organization makes it easier to contextualize emergent issues and participate in sound deliberation.
  • Show up at meetings prepared and ask questions. Board members have to exercise prudent judgement when deliberating and deciding on which action to take. The more prepared, the less likely you are to abdicate that responsibility to someone else. Once you're at the table, a good way to avoid "groupthink" or the tyranny of a few noisy members is to ask thoughtful questions that can drive good decision making.
  • Ask the board chair - "what can I do?" This may depend on the structure and role of your particular board, but generally speaking board members are typically expected to volunteer outside of their participation in board meetings. Being proactive about seeking tasks and assignments is a great way to demonstrate that you are there for the team!
  • Participate in board giving and fundraising. This may not apply to all boards the same way, but philanthropic support is still a fundamental board responsibility. Even if the board doesn't have a formal giving policy, individuals can make a real difference by tuning in to the nonprofit's fundraising activities and making a personally significant contribution.
  • Get to know your peers. Hopefully, boards have sufficient resources to hold retreats and facilitate team-building activities. But board members also don't need planned activities to be proactive in forming strong bonds and relationships with each other. Proactively reaching out to colleagues enhances cohesion while also being a great way to network with others.
Has your board been forced to grapple with how it functions as a team? What are some other ways individual board members can promote being team-players? What are the biggest obstacles to getting everyone on the same page?

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Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE is a nonprofit governance consultant and owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. To learn more, visit www.millerbleichconsulting.com.

© 2020 Rachel Miller-Bleich. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.


















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