A common and contentious management issue for museums and historic sites is the the role and responsibilities of board members and the staff. Frequent complaints I’ve heard are that board members are interfering in staff projects or lack interest in their role as leaders, or that staff is withholding crucial information from the board or is unable to make progress on major goals. Navigating these concerns requires a good hand on the tiller by both the executive director and board chair, but I’ve also found that a facilitated group discussion about roles and responsibilities is often just as effective.
In my years of service on several different boards, each was at a different place in their organizational development, which means the roles and responsibilities was different as well. An all-volunteer start-up organization operates differently from one with a large staff and a long-established set of activities. Boards are not all the same.
Board members also require orientation and training, which rarely happens. There doesn’t seem to be time or no one wants to undergo “training.” Yet, community leaders will move from board to board, assuming their roles and responsibilities are the same despite serving with vastly different organizations.
Rather than “training” or “orientation” for boards, how about an annual retreat to reflect on past successes and plan for the future, which includes some time for a self-assessment to see how you’re doing? Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, Maryland is developing their organizational capacity by holding annual retreats with their board and staff to think more intentionally about their work. These aren’t complex ventures and can easily be adopted by other historic sites, including small ones.
Last Saturday, I facilitated a discussion among the London Town board and senior staff on roles and responsibilities using a survey form developed in consultation with the executive director. It has two dozen statements that describe a role and asks for an opinion on who is responsible: the entire board, a committee, chair, executive director, staff, or unknown. Each person completes the survey by themselves, then we discuss each statement as a group. I’ll have one person start with their answer to the first statement, ask if others agree or disagree, and then have a discussion. Once we’ve achieved consensus, I’ll ask the second person to address the second statement and repeat the process. It took about 2-3 hours to complete the discussion and while it begins slow, it picks up speed as the group develops a pattern for the way they want to work together.
The advantage of this process is that a group of peers discussing and developing their own rules of operation–it isn’t someone lecturing them about what they should or shouldn’t do. Many already have experience with boards and can share their knowledge, and just need to figure out what’s appropriate for this specific organization, so any board member can participate whether they’re brand new or “lifers”. Secondly, the answers will vary depending on the organization’s stage of development, so it doesn’t feel like there’s a right or wrong answer. Be sure to present it as a routine “check-up” to see how things are going, not as a test. Finally, it helps develop consensus and identifies areas that need to be addressed. For London Town, they confirmed a process of making major decisions and discovered a need for more clarity on the role of committees.
You can design your own survey for your organization but you’re welcome to use or modify the one we developed for London Town. Do note that our statements were designed to address a wide range of issues for historic sites and are phrased to encourage discussion (a statement often has several verbs, such as “develops” and “approves,” to avoid one-word answers). Even if you don’t all agree, you’ve learned about each other perspectives and that helps immensely when you’re working together.
MPMA has an orientation process that can always be improved. But at least it has one and it works. It is always held right before a board meeting. Once a board member is elected or selected, the schedule for the board meetng and the orientation is made known. Indeed, all nominated board members know about the orientation before being elected. The orientaiton is one hour. The president goes through the Blue Board Manual page by page, covering everything from mission to programs to finanices to partnershps and including organizational history. The reasons why our orientiaon works is because it is short and timed to coincide with another board event. Another reason it works is because of the page flipping: we acknowledged early on that no one would read the board manual on their own, so we decided to have the board president walk every new board member through it, page by page. No, we don’t train our board members per se; but every board member who attends his/her first board meeting arrives armed with the basics: mission, history, finances, etc. We have witnessed how it doesn’t take much to give folks the confidence to participate in board meetings. But if they don’t get the basics beforehand, they are unlikely to jump into the discussions.
P.S. Wine makes the orientation hour more convivial.
Great suggestions for laying out expectations and providing an efficient orientation, Monta Lee! And, yes, wine is an effective lubricant for board meeting discussions.
Having participated in the London Town session as the new deputy director, I found it a useful exercise. It reminded me of what we were always pushing for when I was working for the Museum Assessment Program: improving communication, setting expectations and increasing buy-in. Thanks, Max!
I’m always curious about the use of the ‘Executive Committee’ as a decision making body. In most organizations the bylaws clearly states they are simply to fill in and take action on items when the full board isn’t able to meet soon enough (e.g. EC meet monthly vs. quarterly full board meetings). I’ve always found it to be disconcerting to be told that the Executive Committee is meeting immediately before the full board meeting, and is reporting on policy decisions it has made. Is that common?