Board culture is the collection of taken-for-granted attitudes, social norms, perceptions and beliefs about “how we do things around here” shared, usually unconsciously, by a majority of board members. A high percentage of agreement with the following statements might indicate problems with the informal culture of the board:
- Too many board members seem unwilling to devote much time or effort to the work of the board.
- There are many differences of opinion among board members that never get resolved. The board doesn’t handle conflict very well.
- The board does not regularly and systematically assess its own performance and change itself if it thinks it can improve.
- Board members tend not to be involved in representing the organization to the outside community or bringing the concerns of that community into the organization.
- As far as I know, many board members have contacts among people who might help the organization but they are not encouraged, or given the opportunity, to make use of them.
- Individual board members with skills and knowledge that might be of use to the organization are rarely approached informally for their assistance.
- Little effort is made to help board members get to know one another and develop “team spirit” as a group.
Why do cultures evolve the way they do? There are at least six major sources of influence that can shape board culture without the members being aware of it:
- Sometimes there are external pressures for boards to act in certain ways that come from critical stakeholder groups such as funders, members or associations of other nonprofit organizations in the same “business.”
- In the case of boards of relatively young organizations or those with a high percentage of new members, certain beliefs, attitudes or social norms may come from founders or members who have previous experience on other boards.
- Similarly when most board members share a homogenous background in terms of such things as age, social status, ethnicity, etc., there is a greater likelihood that they will quickly evolve similar attitudes toward the way their roles and responsibilities on the board should be carried out.
- In some boards, there are members with disproportionately larger resources (largest checkbooks, influential friends, political connections, etc.) who have a greater amount of influence in the group. It is not that they intentionally manipulate others, but nonetheless they may have a larger voice than others in shaping board culture.
- One of the strongest influences shaping board culture is the behavior of those in the critical leadership positions of Board Chair and CEO. While these positions do not have formal authority to make board decisions, they do carry a great deal of informal influence over the process.
- Finally, in addition to the influence of the Board Chair/CEO positions, some boards evolve small sub-groups within themselves, sometimes referred to as cliques or “core groups” (Bradshaw, Murray, & Wolpin, 1992). These informal groups are not recognized officially in any way though they may dominate certain committees or formal offices. They are important because the attitudes and beliefs of their members regarding how the board should operate or what position it should take on various issues can significantly impact those who are not part of the group. It is important to realize that “core groups” are not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes they emerge simply because some people have more time and interest in the organization so do more and find others with a similar outlook to whom they naturally gravitate. Other inner groups develop because they are made up of people with similar periods of long tenure on the board (part of the founder’s syndrome phenomenon discussed earlier). This is especially common when there are no fixed maximum terms of office for board members. New members might come and go but a core of “old timers” stays around.
Core groups become a problem when they engage in any of the following behaviors:
- Control of information or a willful disregard for providing proper orientation to new members thus leading them to feel like outsiders;
- Pushing an “agenda” of their own based on interests or positions on important issues that may not be shared by others; and
- Engaging in “backstage” politicking in the form of “secret” informal meetings outside of regular board meetings to plan how to have their positions on issues approved at the meeting.
However, whether or not core groups are a positive or negative influence on the board, it is useful to recognize they may exist and discuss the role they play so everything is out in the open.
Changing a board’s culture can be very difficult because, by definition, it is something that has developed over time about which many are not consciously aware. So the first step in the change process must be that of surfacing what has heretofore been taken for granted. How to do this?
- One way is through the use of fully confidential self-assessment exercises such as the Board Check-Up, University at Albany, SUNY sponsored research project offered online for free by . This questionnaire, which includes the items above, is especially useful if effort is made to obtain accurate, anonymous perceptions of the board’s culture from board and non-board people who have occasion to observe and/or interact with the board. When results show, for example, that some respondents perceive that there is an inner group that has more influence than others, this finding needs to be put before the whole board for discussion. This discussion should cover the following points:
- What is the evidence that suggests such a group exists?
- If there is consensus that it does, why has it emerged?
- Most importantly, is the behavior of this group good for the board or not-so-good? That is, on balance, do the group’s actions contribute to, or reduce the effectiveness of the board’s decisions and/or individual members in meeting duties of their fiduciary role?
The objective of this open discussion of the perception of an inner group on the board is not necessarily to do away with it. Indeed the board might well want to encourage it since they often do more than others are able to do. Instead, the goal is to work on ways to keep them open and communicating with all board members and discourage “backstage” maneuvering. One of the best ways to prevent negative sub-groups from developing is to conduct regular exercises in team building for the board. The more the board as a whole thinks of itself as a team, the more sub-groups within it are likely to be positive, open and sharing.
- In a similar way, the use of outside consultants may yield insights into the workings of the board that the board has been unable to see for itself.
- One advantage to having, and enforcing, by-laws that specify fixed terms of office for board members is that there will always be new members joining at regular intervals. Usually new members are expected to adopt social norms or go along with the ways of operating the board has followed in the past. However, if a conscious effort is made to ask new board members to provide critical feedback on their perceptions of how the board is working, a surfacing process might take place and needed changes in board culture might be made. However, if a board does engage new members in a change process, it must be open to new information and careful not to be critical of those who are honestly trying to share their perceptions in a constructive way.
- Finally, it is difficult to over emphasize the importance of the Board Chair and the organization’s CEO in creating and changing the unspoken culture of the board. Their leadership styles often set the tone for the way in which the board exercises its collective leadership of the organization. To learn more about the competencies of highly effective chairs, boards, CEOs, and leadership volunteers, see the next chapter on leadership.
To learn more about culture in nonprofit boards and organizations and how to influence it see the websites in Table 10.
Organizational Culture: General
Team Building in Boards