With all the excitement around Google+ and the circles feature it reminded me of the circle strategy being used by the social sector as a way to manage advocates and advisers.  So often, large advisory boards or councils are created as a place to keep those who are important, influential, philanthropic towards ones cause but may not be ready, willing, able to serve on the board.  As the names and influence grow these councils can become challenging to steer, especially when there was dissension about organizational strategies.  I have watched founders and key supporters on advisory councils that were inactive suddenly leap into action to ‘save’ an organization from a decision they deemed harmful or inappropriate.  This can cause a lot of anxiety and diplomacy for a Board Chair and CEO.

One way to address the adviser role is to create circles.  For example, there might be President’s Circle.  Individuals the President can call upon to seek advice and council.  Communication and engagement does not need to be scheduled but if the request for input is sincere and meaningful, the advisers stay connected.  Usually this is a group that requires a meaningful touches and communication but may not meet as a formal body.  Board Chair Circle, Development Circle, Marketing Circle, Volunteer Circle, Community Cirles are some common examples.  Appropriate staff or board leadership can facilitate these circles.  It also provides a nice vehicle to connect to advocates who have specific talents and are willing to be a resource for the cause.

What circles are you formally or informally managing?

Leading Practices

Last week’s BoardSource Leadership Forum presented some updates on nonprofit governance that I found insightful:

  • Nomination Committees are no longer recommended as a separate committee of the board.  Governance Committees are the preferred model for handling board nominations, self-assessment, board engagement, and training among other responsibilities.

  • Board terms that run 1-year, 2-year, and 3-year for a total of six years of service are being recommended in place of the classic two 3-year terms.  An initial one-year commitment encourages the candidate to engage quicker and for the organization to empower the board member with meaningful work.  A short initial term provides sufficient assessment for both the board candidate and organization.  

  • Bylaws are recommended to be less restrictive and provide appropriate latitude.  Many committee structures and guidelines are being incorporated in Board Policies, thereby freeing the bylaws of potentially cumbersome organizational definitions.  An example is to provide an organization with greater range in the number of board members, remove arcane attendance requirements, embrace technology, and reduce the stringent meeting requirements (the third Tuesday of the month at 4 PM).

  • Executive Committees are recommended to meet as needed and not on a regular basis.  With an always-on and always-connected world there are few circumstances where immediate action is required without being able to assemble or poll the entire board.  Executive Committees continue to be a great resource to Executive Directors to provide a safe sounding-board and to float initiatives.