Too many lawyers?

26 04 2009

Populating Your Board II: Too Many Lawyers?

Now you have a good idea of what your board should be able to do as a whole: determine Direction, set Policy, provide Oversight, and Fundraise. But what about the specific talents you need?  

What wisdom should they have? What work should they know how to do? If all you have are one kind of constituent represented, how do you know that the policy and direction you set will be acceptable to all the different stakeholders? If they’re all lawyers, how do you know you’re setting good financial or technology policy? 

Filling vacancies on your board is too important to leave to chance. It should be a systematic process engaged in by many minds. Create a committee of your board and have your Executive Director join you; maybe your Director of Development, as well. Together, begin the process by figuring out who has a stake in your organization’s success.

 What this means is, who cares what you do and how you do it, and are these groups important to your organization? For example, your clients are a likely stakeholder group. In a food bank, that may be a food recipient; in a school, that may be the students (or their parents). Other stakeholders are less apparent. In a university based social/religious organization I once served, we decided our constituents were students, alumni, parents, faculty/administration, community members, and clergy. For long-term viability and relevance, we needed people in each decade of life – 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, etc. So we determined that as much as possible, individuals from each of these groups should be represented in our board mix. Having this mix allowed each set of stakeholders to feel that they had a say in our policy and direction, and that their point of view was being heard.

 But again, if all of those stakeholders are lawyers, how do you know you’re setting good financial, human resources or technology policy? That’s when the committee and ED take a good, hard look at all the different kinds of decisions the board and executive have to make, and determine what kind of expertise you need to have on the board to make those decisions and provide oversight for their execution?

Do you have to make IT decisions? It would help to have an IT person on board. Do you have to make fiscal policy? A CPA will help. Do you have personnel decisions to make? Look for Human Resources expertise. And despite my kidding around, yes, you should have a lawyer on the board. Then look at your board and see where there are holes.

Here’s an easy way to start; open up an Excel spreadsheet and make a grid. Down the left hand column, list all the expertise you’d like to have on your board, and all the different stakeholder groups you can think of.  Next, across the top of the sheet, in each column, list the name of a board member. Go down each column, and put an ‘X’ in each constituency and each expertise that particular board member can represent. Two-fers are good! A 50 year-old alumna who is a parent and also a marketing expert is a bonus. A 40 year-old community member CPA who conducts IT audits as part of his firm’s consulting practice is a nice plus.

Now, look for the holes. What expertise and constituents are you missing? Using this rough grid, you’ve made a start on figuring out the kinds of people you should seek out to join your board.

Will remaking your board happen in a single election cycle? Of course not. But by being systematic about the process, your ED and each member of the board can keep an eye out for likely prospects and your nominating committee will have good direction. When nominating time comes, your committee will have a way to think about whether an individual who is passionate about your cause can also bring something fresh to the board.

Of course, there are still some things that remain to be considered. How do you reach beyond the usual suspects? How do you go beyond the old girls’ network to find truly new people to consider? Stay tuned…that’s another post!  

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