Economic uncertainty, increased demand for services and concurrent decreases in funding, as well as calls for greater accountability create an increasingly complex and challenging environment in which boards must lead and govern. Board members are responsible for exercising sound judgment and acting in the best interests of the organization while serving their communities effectively. In this context, what are the key governance responsibilities of boards and board members?
- Strategic direction: Organizations benefit from engaging their boards, key staff and sometimes others in developing a strategic vision, goals and priorities. The strategic plan then guides the efforts and decision-making of the board, and ideally forms the basis for staff to plan, implement and evaluate their activities.
- Clear roles and responsibilities: To avoid unnecessary – and sometimes very unproductive and divisive – confusion, board members need to understand their individual and collective roles, and how their roles and responsibilities are different to those of any staff. The organization needs human resource management policies that describe those differences.
- Communication: Ongoing communication, where information is shared freely and in a timely manner, is critical. Without adequate information, boards can neither function well nor make good decisions. Good communication ensures that boards can be effective, and also builds trust and camaraderie among board members.
- Governance tools: Organizations need to develop tools that inform and guide their boards: bylaws that describe the formal governance structure, and a board manual that includes current governance policies and other documents that help new board members understand the organization and their role in it.
- Board preparation and succession: Boards should give careful thought to the skills needed for their future priorities, recruit strong community members and leaders with those skills while clearly outlining the commitments expected of incoming board members, and undertake board orientation, training and evaluation to ensure that the board is successful.
For organizations to be effective, they need active and engaged boards that provide strategic leadership and govern thoughtfully. An Effective Board Governance handbook developed by a Canadian group called the First Nations Education Steering Committee, noted that “what direction the board gives, and what decisions the board makes, will directly affect the lives of the staff and the constituents you represent.” By offering passionate, responsible, prudent and conscientious leadership, boards can seek to ensure organizations thrive under their care.