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Trustees tempted to dwell on the size of the board should ask “What would we do differently or better tomorrow if the size of the board were, instantly, what we regard as optimal? What would we do worse?” Start with results and work backward. “What impedes the outcomes we seek? Why can other boards, comparable in size to this board, achieve these results?” Size does not matter nearly as much as some imagine.The size of a board affects how a board works more than how well it works.
Board Composition. Nonprofits too often consider ideal board composition to be the equivalent of a versatile small appliance,
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sold on late-night television, that slices and dices, chops, shreds, minces, and juliennes—and it’s dishwasher-safe, too! The board-as-multipurpose-appliance includes a mix of technical expertise, wealth, diversity, and political connections. But trustees expressly recruited for technical expertise (for example, law, banking, engineering) are likely, either as a matter of preference or at management’s direction, to concentrate on technical aspects of the organization.Trustees recruited principally as constituent representatives or as tokens of diversity are frequently marginalized as stakeholder advocates or symbolic placeholders. And well-heeled board members recruited as attractive development prospects may expect to exert disproportionate influence over matters large and small in exchange for largess. In short, this type of board-as-Swiss-army-knife has been recruited to do everything but govern.3
The more that boards gravitate toward governance as leadership, the more this vacuum will be apparent and problematic. Technical expertise, wealth, and connections are all still necessary, though no longer sufficient. How trustees think becomes more important than what trustees know. Technical expertise can always be acquired on the outside; the vital work that needs to be done at the top of the generative curve cannot be so easily outsourced. In Type III mode, other forms of capital (for example, intellectual, reputational, political, and social), as described in Chapter 7, assume an importance at least commensurate with financial capital. And the ability to represent the
3These considerations would be different, of course, if we were addressing the challenges of all-volunteer or very young nonprofits with little staff capacity. But as we noted in the preface, our analysis is aimed at nonprofits with professional staff and volunteer boards.
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board at the boundaries of the organization becomes more critical than a determination to represent a constituency to the board.
In sum, governance as leadership suggests a new approach to trustee recruitment, one that stresses quality of mind, a tolerance for ambiguity, an appetite for organizational puzzles, a fondness for robust discourse, and a commitment to team play.
While the old checklists, centered around trustees’ personal, professional, and financial background, may still have some utility, these new criteria deserve equal or greater weight. Otherwise, the organization may find itself with a board that plays many, indeed any, useful roles, other than the most important one: to contribute leadership through the practice of governance.
Trustee Term limits.Term limits pose the same dilemma as board size. There are trade-offs that periodically tempt boards to swap one set of problems for another. Term limits solve the problem of “deadwood” but create the problem of costly turnover among valued and dedicated trustees. Without term limits, boards avert that risk but suffer instead from an inability to remove the laggards and infuse the board with “new blood.” These are all legitimate worries that cannot be solved just by changing the bylaws, whether to institute or abolish term limits.
Well done, governance as leadership can moderate, though not cure, the drawbacks that each of these alternatives presents. Boards without term limits need to keep trustees engaged and fresh year after year.With a focus on learning, framing, generating, interacting, and resolving, governance as leadership will keep trustees engrossed longer, more passionately, and more profitably for the organization. Generative work promotes the
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discovery of new problems and opportunities and stimulates a plurality of perspectives. Anchored to consequential work by the board and often with other stakeholders, governance as leadership ups the ante and heightens accountability in ways that alleviate the “free rider” problem.
At the same time, a board with term limits, but engaged in generative governance, has two powerful magnets to draw new trustees: (1) a meaningful role in consequential work and (2) the testimony of fulfilled ex—board members. If the challenges and opportunities inherent to Type III governance prove irresistible to a recruit, then the chances for a productive tenure are excellent. Conversely, potential trustees, daunted by the prospect of governance that demands much so that board members contribute even more, can opt out, to the advantage of the organization and the would-be trustee.