Keeping Your Cornerstone from Crumbling Starts with Building a Strong Board of Directors through Rec

By Dr. Nathan A. Schaumleffel, Driven Strategic LLC, @drschaumleffel @drivenstrategic

Last autumn, I posted a blog about setting the cornerstone in a park foundation. Now, remember, the cornerstone is the board of directors. Board members need to give their time, treasure, and talent to the friends group. As I mentioned before, not every park-loving friend who is fantastic at volunteering his or her time and talent needs to be a board member.

Board members need to be systematically identified, carefully recruited, and intentionally selected, so that the organizational culture is meticulously engineered as envisioned.

Systematic identification of board members combined with a solid leadership succession plan begins with the current board of directors creating a Nominating Committee. Some are suggesting, with good reason, Nominating Committees should be called Governance Committees since board member placement is not just nomination, but also recruitment, selection, on-boarding, motivating, and evaluating.

When a Governance Committee embarks on board member recruitment they should start by taking inventory of their current board and then creating a strategic needs table. You’ll find that diversity, all kinds of diversity, in your board make-up is critical, desirable, positive, and mission-focused. Park foundations should consider including not only residents, but non-residents on their local park foundation board to add a dimension of its external constituents.

Governance Committees, like any volunteer manager…given board members are volunteers, should develop specific board member job descriptions based on the outcomes of completing the strategic needs table.

As Amy Cahmers said, “Professionally, none of us would hire someone without making it clear what is expected. The same should hold true when recruiting and selecting board members for a nonprofit organization. The board member job description is the first and most important step to ensure that an organization has a high-performing board—a board whose members know what is expected of them and who work to support the organization and its mission.”

Now, if you have been around a local public park and recreation agency for any amount of time, you’ll understand that parks and recreation as a public function exists within a political bubble making it susceptible to politics, games, and nonsense. Oftentimes, political climbers use their appointed or elected park board positions as stepping stones to higher elected offices, such as city or county council or even the mayor’s office.

A key concern and goal of a park foundation or friends group is to do its very best to focus on its vision and mission to support the public park and recreation agency all the while keeping out of the political bubble….as much as possible.

Remember, optimally-functioning park foundations and friends groups are independent, nonprofit corporations with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service. Park foundations are legally separate entities from the public agency that governs and manages the public park and recreation system in your community. This alone somewhat insulates park foundations and friends groups from the political jockeying. However, the people selected to lead the park foundation, the board members, must choose to focus on the organization’s mission and choose to not consciously use the park foundation to further their own political ambitions. These realities make board member recruitment absolutely critical for a park foundation or friends groups.

Before your park foundation’s Governance Committee begins to identify potential board members, I encourage you to NOT consider the usual suspects…you know the same five or ten big names of your community that are involved in everything and seemingly have their hands on all of the decisions of the local political bubble. You know…the same five or ten people whose names always surface when considering a major gift ask, in-kind donations, or a special event sponsorship.

Not too long ago, May 10th, 2016, if my memory serves me correctly, I was presenting a webinar for the National Association of Park Foundations titled So Your Local Park Foundation Needs a Strong Board of Directors. Board member recruitment and leadership succession planning were parts of the webinar. During the Q&A, one attendee shared that his local park foundation’s corporate by-laws automatically place all former elected (or appointed) park board members from the public park and recreation agency onto the park foundation board of directors. The good news here is they’ll probably always have a continual stream of park foundation board members. But, and I mean BUT, the bad news is that they’ll systemically always pull the political bubble that public parks and recreation operates within right over the top of the park foundation.

Now, I know there are some fantastic park board members whose terms on the public park board end (for whatever reasons), and that they would be fantastic park foundation board members. I know..I get it. In these cases, simply let your Governance Committee identify them as any other potential park foundation board member candidate, instead of mandatorily having to seat any former park board member regardless of attendance, commitment, engagement, and collegiality. By collegiality, I mean....can they play nice in the sand box with other board members and can they keep the park foundation’s mission as the guiding star of their interactions, behaviors, and decision-making?

When a park foundation “paints themselves into a corner” with a by-law or policy, especially a by-law that automatically seats former park board members on the park foundation board, trouble awaits like a ticking time bomb. Some people just behave badly….or are just simply a toxic personality….a rotten apple that will rotten the whole darn basket!

When automatically seating a former park board member, a collegial person or not, the park foundation is skipping over a critical step of building a competent board by actively taking inventory of their current board and then creating a strategic needs table that will guide board member recruitment. Setting the cornerstone of a park foundation, that is building a strong board of directors, is like fielding a baseball team. You don’t need nine 1st basemen, even if they’re all Hall of Fame-caliber, Gold Glove winning 1st baseman. You need to field a competent, collegial, passionate, engaged board filling all positions with quality people to fill all needs in your board inventory.

I encourage Governance Committees to look at the up and comers in a community, NOT the usual suspects. I’m talking about the 25 to 40-year old crowd that is well-educated, passionate, able to give significant time and talent, and can give at least a respectable (maybe not leadership-level) annual fund gift to the organization. The ones that have professional jobs with a post-secondary education that have strong social networks and even stronger technology skills. The up and comers with technology skills can activate a park foundation or friends group by mastering useful nonprofit technologies like Bloomerang for launching a robust annual fund, Volgistics to recruit and engage volunteers for park improvement projects and signature event implementation, and Asana to manage projects and to organically monitor progress on the park foundation’s strategic plan, goals, and objectives in between monthly board meetings.

Building a competent board is the eighth of ten BoardSource responsibilities of nonprofit boards. Building a competent board starts with the Governance Committee when identifying, recruiting, selecting, on-boarding, and developing competent board members into an effective team in a leaderful organization. Leaderful organizations demonstrate best practices in succession management.

Park foundations and friends groups Governance Committees, like any good HR manager, need to start with making a “good hire” on the front end with high-quality board member recruitment. Although keeping your cornerstone from crumbling starts with recruitment, it ends with board member evaluation. And somewhere in the middle are on-boarding, training, motivation, engagement, appreciation, participation, support, and supervision.

Great board members not only participate through attendance, but engage; give his or her time and talent to complete the tasks in his or her job description with collegiality; and give generously of his or her treasure. In time, poor board member recruitment will ultimately lead to board member departure or removal, which will undoubtedly create negative relationships with the individual as a volunteer, but also as a donor and ambassador of your mission and your park system!

NAPF Membership

I truly hope you’ll begin to enhance the park experience in your community by strengthening the cornerstone of your park foundation and keeping your cornerstone from crumbling!

Consider joining NAPF today! You’ll get the capacity-building resources to start, build, and grow the impact of your local park foundation or friends group!

Please, follow both NAPF (@the_napf) and I (@drschaumleffel @drivenstrategic) on Twitter!

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© Dr. Nathan A. Schaumleffel, Terre Haute, Indiana, USA


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