Is your board a “bear?”

We were in a project-launch meeting with a client recently when the executive director made the observation that “my board is kind of a bear.”

Thankfully, he didn’t simply mean that his board was terribly challenging, but was using the animal metaphor in a more descriptive way–which he went on to explain.

If your board were an animal, what animal would it be–and why? This could be a fine exercise if you spend a little time focusing on the animal characteristics and then shift to exploring what the implications are of this metaphor, both positive and where there is room for improvement.

Our client’s reference to having a “bear” for a board included some of the following, which we’ve expanded on. Your board might be a bear, too, if some of this seems true:

1. It’s kind of clumsy and lumbering. Bears are big creatures and usually slow to move. What could you do to make your board more nimble and responsive?

2. It’s only seasonally active, and only in a predictable way. Does this serve your purposes fully, and should you try and break this cycle?

3. It’s not often visible. Are there all-too-rare “sightings” of a board member at your events?

4. It is feared. Staff members may be anxious about your board’s power and decision-making if there isn’t a clear understanding of boundaries and responsibilities. Create opportunities to build relationships around shared values–i.e., passion for your mission.

5.  It can be awfully protective. Like the proverbial mother bear with her cub, does your board stand firm to protect certain things–and is this a good thing in terms of your nonprofit’s evolution?

6.  It’s sheer size can be overwhelming. It’s rare that RMA’s clients have the optimum size of a board. We usually recommend 14-16 members, which is the national average.

7.  It’s preferred mode is solitary. Does your board have a tangible connection to the population your serve, or are your directors mostly off in a cave somewhere? And what about better use of your board members as community outreach “ambassadors?”

8.  There are long periods of sleep. Nonprofit organizations, especially those in a rapid growth phase, can’t be effective if no one is paying attention to funding opportunities and shifts in industry trends.

9.  It can be aggressive when need be. A crisis in your organization–around money, around leadership–will invariably force a drowsy board to wake up. Remove the unpleasant element of surprise by fostering a more continuously active board culture.

10.  It can be messy. Ever seen a campground or cabin after a bear has visited? Obviously it’s too late then to worry about how well-organized you were, but you can ensure a better future for your board in crisis with strong by-laws, board policies, and defined governance.

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