Q:  I am serving on a board that has chosen to focus on its governance over the next year. We have put together a governance task force. The idea is that, while two board directors will co-chair this task force, we would recruit professionals with expertise in the area to guide us in the creation of a strong governance development plan. I have two questions. Does this sound like a good idea? And, if so, what types of people would you suggest we recruit to help us in this process?

 

A:  I think it’s an excellent idea. I actually have served in the “governance expert” role for two organizations over the years, and both were able to accomplish a lot, quickly, because of it. But, there are some caveats. Governance by its very nature is best dealt with by the board that will be governed by the decisions that come out of the task force. So, if you are going to pull in outside experts, it requires a true openness to outsider opinion. It is all too easy for directors to get defensive when hearing a stream of “should,” or even “could.” To combat this, you might want to consider having at least half of the task force populated with your own directors, so it becomes a true and equal exchange of ideas.

As to the type of people you could ask to join your governance task force to contribute “expert” opinion, you might consider individuals who have chaired either the board or governance committee of strong organizations in your community. It would not have to be organizations with a related mission. You could also consider someone who chaired a national organization or governance committee. The person would not have to be local. With today’s technology, that individual could “Skype” in with his/her experiences. Another option is seeing if there is someone who teaches nonprofit management or governance at a local university. If not, here again you might look for some of the most respected governance scholars and see if they would participate virtually. Finally, you can ask consultants that specialize in governance, though understand that sharing this expertise is how they earn their money, and you will either have to find someone who shares a deep passion for your mission or expect to pay.

You might also consider a slightly different approach. You could tap experts to help you perform specific governance tasks. Let me give you four brief examples:

  • Is it time to make compensation decisions for your executive director? What about calling on people like an HR manager, a compensation specialist, a business or law professor that specializes in compensation, or even a local reporter that has written an article on nonprofit compensation or authored a compensation study? They would only have to meet a couple times to complete the task at hand. Most people would be willing to help out a worthy nonprofit under such a condition.
  • What about conduct board evaluations? While people are more likely to buy into any need for change if they self-evaluate, or the evaluation is done by a peer, here too utilizing experts who have traveled this road before might help your organization avoid some potentially damaging pitfalls. HR specialists again top the list when moving forward with this practice. A therapist might help ensure the group “hears” the feedback and is willing to do the work necessary to modify actions or behaviors. You could also ask someone from another nonprofit that did this work for his/her own organization to guide you through the process. In this case, it might be most effective if the person was previously unknown to the group.
  • Recruitmentis a critical and ongoing governance function. HR people are an obvious choice to help you find the “right” people, as are headhunters, because they have to do this work all the time. But consider others, like recruiters for the military or admissions officers at universities.
  • Does your board wish to exercise more intentionaldecision-making? An obvious choice is a CEO or COO of a major corporation in your city. So is a professor of business, industrial psychology or organizational communication who teaches decision-making. But, you could also bring in a philosopher or a CIA analyst. They are specially trained in this area.

Definitely pursue this idea. Be creative when thinking through the types of people that could help you strengthen your governance. Identify the best of the best. And ask.

One last thought…Be prepared to share what you can offer these experts in exchange for their time and knowledge. It doesn’t have to be tangible. Many would appreciate the opportunity to help promote an important mission, or to work with other high caliber experts. There is always something of value you can offer.