Essential Characteristics of Superb Governance

  • Board members understand the organization’s mission; can articulate it in their own words; are proud of the organization and endorse it to friends and colleagues; and receive board orientation and ongoing board education from the start.
  • The board is strategic in perspective and action, spending significant time at each meeting on the organization’s longer-term aspirations, possibilities and constraints and regularly reviewing progress towards the realization of longer-term strategic perspectives.
  • The board ensures that all of its members are substantively engaged in its work and activities; have particular roles and responsibilities related to the realization of its mission; and actively support the organization by annual contributions. Attendance at board meetings is uniformly high—with at least three quarters of the members present, on average, at all full board meetings and committee meetings.
  • The board fosters a sense of inclusiveness and cohesiveness among its members and with staff; ensures diversity and complementarity of backgrounds, capacities and interests among its members; and has the capabilities that the institution needs.
  • The board insists that the CEO is its true partner, undertaking the indispensable role of ensuring the effective realization of mission and programs, while helping it understand—analytically as well as anecdotally — the opportunities and impediments to successful achievement.
  • The board pays active attention to developing and maintaining the organization’s culture and values.
  • The board has an active nominating process that continually refreshes the governance of the organization, with something like 10% to 15% of the board turning over each year in order to provide fresh thinking and new perspectives while maintaining continuity.
  • The board evaluates itself each year: it takes stock of what it has done well; what it has overlooked; how it has served the organization; and how it has carried out the work of governance. It likewise annually evaluates each of its members— whether the board member faithfully attends meetings, understands the mission, engages in substantive work and makes a serious annual financial contribution—and acts thoughtfully and sensitively, but tough-mindedly, about retaining only those members who pass the evaluation with flying colors. The board insists on high transparency in all transactions; demands the highest ethical standards; and does not tolerate conflicts of interest by board or staff members. The board ensures that all of the basics—up-to-date bylaws, clear organization design, sound budgeting and rigorous financial planning and reporting — are in place.
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