“Well, it’s time to elect new officers since two of our four current officers are rotating off the board!”
“Anyone want to step up to the plate this year?”
… Even louder SILENCE.
“Ok, it’s really important that we elect a new chair and vice-chair tonight, and hopefully, our current treasurer and secretary will agree to stay on in their role another year since no one else has volunteered for a strong executive committee. Come on…anyone? Bob? Ana? What about you Sara? Anybody?”
Does this conversation feel familiar?
Are you the concerned board leader struggling to fill open seats to maintain a Strong Executive Committee? Or are you the board member who tentatively raised your hand because no one else would?
You are not alone.
Seventy-three percent of nonprofit organizations report having no documented succession plan
in place. This statistic is particularly alarming, considering that more than 60%-75% say that
they intend to leave the organization within the next five years. (Succession Planning for
Nonprofits – Managing Leadership Transition, 2019).
This trend is concerning because the strength of the board’s leadership directly impacts both the current and long-term sustainability and success. Best practice indicates that
nonprofit boards should impose term limits for a strong executive committee.
Governing boards should be prepared to fill vacant board seats at the end of each term and have
strategies to fill unexpected vacancies. While the entire board should be responsible for
identifying, recruiting, and onboarding qualified leaders, the buck ultimately stops with a strong
Most nonprofit boards refer to their elected officers as the “Executive Committee.” Traditionally
this includes the chair (or president), vice-chair (or vice-president), treasurer, and secretary.
If your organization finds itself scrambling to fill seats with qualified and willing leaders, consider the following five intentional steps to building your strong Executive Committee:
- ESTABLISH STRATEGIC TERM LIMITS
If your board currently approves board members for one-year terms, it might be time to
consider changing your bylaws. New board members need ample time to “learn their role”; and fully engage. They need even longer to feel comfortable taking on a leadership role. By voting in board members for a one-year term, the organization places itself in the precarious position of having an ever-changing board. Even if board members can “renew” after one year, the structure itself does not lend itself to a healthy leadership cycle.
Consider a reasonable, multi-year term limit with the opportunity to renew once before taking a mandatory one-year “break” from the board.
According to a BoardSource survey, “nearly three-quarters of the respondents reported using
three-year terms, with a maximum of two terms”.
Three-year board terms are ideal because they establish a strategic structure for leadership
development. In year one, new board members can learn more about the organization's mission and governance process. In year two, they might assume a more significant leadership role under the guidance of a mentor. By year three, your board ideally should have groomed members who are equipped and willing to serve on the Executive Committee or in other key leadership positions.
- COMMUNICATE LEADERSHIP OPPORTUNITIES IN YOUR RECRUITMENT PROCESS.
Remember the adage “you reap what you sow”. Never “sell” a board seat with a phrase such as “It’s not that hard… or…all you have to do is attend meetings…or we will just be happy to have you on the board to share your ideas”. If you plant the idea that your organization accepts board members who are minimally engaged, you will reap an inactive and unenthused board. That is not a sign of a strong executive committee.
Your recruitment process is the first critical step in securing your organization’s future!
Focus on quality over quantity and avoid filling seats with warm bodies. As you identify
prospective board members, be sure to engage candidates in honest conversations about their interests, availability, and willingness to assume leadership roles during their tenure on the board.
- CLARIFY EXPECTATIONS FOR BOARD ENGAGEMENT
Would you ever hire a new CEO for your “for-profit” business without providing them with a detailed job description, measurable benchmarks for production/sales, or both short-term and long-term end goals?
Every board member should know what is expected of them, no matter which seat they
occupy at the table. In addition to outlining the job description for general board members, be sure to draft and approve written job descriptions for each officer position. Then, take it a step further and outline the Executive Committee’s key roles and responsibilities as a primary
decision-making party. The Executive Committee works hand in hand with the Executive Director, and to do so, clarity, transparency, and effective communication is paramount. For
this reason, the Executive Committee job description might also guide how to appropriately
interact with the organization’s Executive Director or lead staff.
Provide current job descriptions to your team, as well as a list of realistic expectations for
board engagement. Sharing written job descriptions for every position on the board ensures
that everyone understands leadership functions before they volunteer or get “voluntold” for a vague Executive Committee role!
- EDUCATE AND EMPOWER
Once you have outlined job roles, responsibilities, and expectations in writing, it is time to
ENGAGE and EMPOWER your leadership team.
Your onboarding and board development processes should provide a comprehensive
approach to providing information, opportunities, and support to new board members. This
experience should not be passive but rather allow them to share what role they can see
themselves filling in the upcoming years. Experienced board leaders should be stepping up to mentor new members. Specifically, the Executive Committee members must commit to
being intentional in their efforts to identify a qualified successor, determine their interest and
availability, and prepare them for their future roles.
- Develop and Approve a Strategic Plan
It is nearly impossible for an Executive Committee to be unified and effective leaders without
an approved strategic plan.
Would you ever get on a plane or a boat without knowing where you are going? Absolutely not. When you get on board, you are confident that the pilot and you are heading to a predetermined destination. There might be some unavoidable delays, but at the end of the day, you trust that the pilot, the co-pilot, and the cabin crew are doing their best to get you safely and swiftly to your destination.
Your community, staff, and board members need to share the same confidence in your
organization’s Executive Committee. While the entire board must participate in the strategic planning process, the Executive Committee members bear a more significant burden in achieving its mission and vision.
The most effective strategic plans include a capacity-building component that outlines board development. Strategies to strengthen and grow a diverse board might include the creation of a board development committee and board recruitment and retention policy.
It is not enough to fill board seats; the organization must also focus on grooming leaders who are willing and ready to serve as officers and critical voices on the Executive Committee.
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