Perspective: Boards - it's time to step up!

Over the last 10 years, I’ve been on a Board, answered to a Board and worked with numerous client Boards across the for-purpose sector.  

I’m on the door step of turning 40 and I’d like to be on Boards over the next 40-50 years, but I wouldn’t go near most Boards I see in the for-purpose sector and believe they all need to step up a gear!  

You often hear people say Boards are full of 'pale-male-stale' board members, hinting at the older men brigade. However, it is my observation that most Boards have just become ‘stale’, even ones with gender balance. They are not mentally agile, responsive, innovative, sophisticated nor professional. The older male brigade may not be in the room, but the same musty smell permeates the air! 

Most of the public dialogue is centred around “more women on Boards”, but I also believe we need to agitate for greater sense of overall improvement and performance from our Boards. By upping the ante on professionalism, and expecting it in the for-purpose sector particularly, will also just inevitably result in more women on Boards.  

Here’s my two bobs on the matter:  


We need more women, yes. But we also need women of all ages. Likewise, men of all ages. I’ve met men in their 40s and 50s just as alienated and frustrated by the older male Board domination. We need greater ethnic as well as geographic representation. Accounting for the differences in gender and culture are up there with differences for urban and rural, and it’s often very overlooked by city-centric Boards.  


Fundraising nous for Boards should be mandatory. If they are a Board on a for-purpose organisation (I don’t use NFP vernacular), then they need to a minimum 3-hour fundraising induction, and know their roles and responsibilities within the fundraising eco-system. They need to learn that fundraising is a whole of organisation principle, not a job description. They need to learn that fundraising is relational not transactional, and crowd-funding is not the next silver bullet! And they should be encouraging more “Get, Give or Get Off” principles among each other which should cover traditional fundraising and business development, which would help their EO / CEO sleep at night! 


Boards that have marketing, data and digital nous will help their organisations move ahead in leaps and bounds. I see Boards who draw a blank when any of these notions are raised. I still see Boards who think a marketing strategy is a waste of money. It generally has a correlation to their traction in the marketplace! Some Boards also only have 1 director with some or limited marketing knowledge. It’s not enough in today’s world. Like fundraising, they need to know the current best-practice thinking. They have a responsibility to the organisation that they serve (yes, they serve, not other way around) to be on trend in these areas. Financial and legal governance is just not enough in today's world. 


When I first looked at my Position Description as an EO, I wondered what the Board's Position Descriptions looked like. When I asked, it was met with stone faces, nervous laughter and dismissive tones. But why not? Why are we not holding our Board to the same level of account as our leadership teams. It’s not enough that they are volunteers and are there for the feel-good, CV-building factor. Professional Boards will grow professional organisations. Otherwise, as my father taught me: “a fish rots from the head down”. This follows into performance reviews too, which should be mandatory and acted up. Boards won’t lift their game until they are held to account. 


If Board members have an organisation that comprises an EO and 2-3 support staff, then they should at least have had experience in leading a resource-lean organisation. Otherwise, many end up dumping enormous amounts of work and pressure on their EO and they wonder they get EO burn or churn. If stress burned calories, most of our sector's leaders would be supermodels!! I have been, and I have seen EO’s and CEO’s working ridiculous hours because of outrageous expectations by their Boards. And I believe this is permeating into our culture. Be deliberately and intentionally kind to your organisation’s head honcho, and when you think you have been, be kind again and again. Kindness never goes out of date.

(Author's Note: There is no particular reason why I have capitalised the word Board throughout, but possibly my fingers feel capitalisation will help the cause!)

Julia Keady
05 September 2016

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