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Governance Topics

Papers and Peers

Every time I indicate my agreement with software terms and conditions by checking the box without bothering to read the small print, I'm reminded of how little placing a signature on a document really means in indicating comprehension and agreement. I want the software so I sign, whether I truly agree, in my heart of hearts, or not.

The same, sadly, is true of board agreements, commitment sheets, and other governance documents. If the only choice is to sign or be ostracized, someone will sign without giving a second thought.

And many board members do.

Paper only goes so far. It’s definitely important to clarify and define the standards for board member performance, but codifying expectations on paper – and even getting board members to sign their agreement – doesn’t guarantee their behavior will improve.

In mathematical terms, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition.

If board members are unclear, have never been instructed, or absorb contradictory feedback by observing current board member norms, it’s certainly helpful to give out a document that outlines the behaviors expected of board members. Queries like: “Is it OK to skip a meeting? Do we need to show up at fundraising events? When do I make my gift?” can be answered without the member having to ask a potentially embarrassing question in front of the group at large.

But lists of desired board behaviors are just that, hopes on a piece of paper, without the peer-to-peer pressure that makes board members fight through the inertia and competing priorities in their lives in order to deliver for the nonprofit.

Just having the paper is a start – and a good start at that. But committee charters, fundraising commitment sheets, even officer duties described in the bylaws – are just sheets of paper without a culture in which board members perform.

The discouraging message “we don’t do that here” is easily absorbed by a new board member if they look around after signing their commitment sheet and see 75% of the members are out of compliance.

On the other hand, if their commitment sheet signing is accompanied by a look-in-the-eye discussion with a fellow board member who asks for specific examples of how the required behaviors will be manifested, that’s a different scenario altogether.

Couple that with board meetings at which board members are proudly reporting on the actions they’ve taken to fulfill, even surpass, their board member responsibilities, and then you’re on your way to a board culture in which fulfilling expectations is the norm.