April 13, 2016

The Sociological Imagination: How to Build a Culture of Board Governance

Sometimes, we need a wider lens to get a fuller view of the landscape. If we want to capture the vastness of the forest, for example, a close-up image of a single tree will not provide the proper perspective. Whatever the object, if we zoom in too tightly, we have no context for understanding the significance of it in a larger sense.

This, in my opinion, is the problem with most board orientation programs: they miss the bigger picture.

Typically, we think of board orientation as an introduction to the organization. To this end, we provide a lot of information to new board members: organizational history, a copy of the strategic plan, perhaps a copy of the audit. This is all good stuff in that it does provide a bit of a running start to individuals new to the organization. But I suggest we need a wider lens so that we can view board orientation within its proper context.

The lens I have in mind is the sociological one. Viewed from this perspective, orientation is not a single event aimed at introduction to an organization. Rather, board orientation is an important first step in an ongoing process of socialization into the organization. And this changes everything.

Socialization is the process by which we gain full membership into the groups we inhabit. We achieve this by “taking on” the roles that are assigned to us by the larger group, a process called internalization. Consider, for example, your role at your place of employment. First, you had to learn what was expected of you as an employee: how you treat others, what behaviors get rewarded, even who gets what space in the refrigerator. Eventually, the objective reality of that environment began shaping your subjective experience at work. In other words, you become that employee such that you don’t have to think about it much.

Sealing the Cracks

The underlying challenge as I see it is that most board suffer from what sociologists referred to as a fractured culture. That is, the board itself is not clear on its own expectations for members, which results in inconsistent messages, misaligned structures, and erratic board behavior.

The first step toward an integrated board culture is to clarify the role of your board. Every nonprofit board has some combination governing, advisory, and some fundraising That is the foundation of the board role. From there, you may need what is commonly referred to as a working board, meaning that some committee work will focus on fulfilling what typically are management functions. Examples include marketing, resource development, and human resources. In some cases, the organization will need a fundraising board, which is not to be confused with the baseline expectation that each member of the board contribute in some way to the fundraising effort. Fundraising boards are necessary for those nonprofits that obtain most of its revenue through philanthropic giving. Boards of this type usually are comprised of people of influence and affluence.

The second step is to build the committee structure to support the type of board you need. This begins with a brief written job description for each committee but extends to the nature of the committees’ work. Consider a marketing committee as an example. Strategic work for a marketing committee involves identifying key messages, key stakeholders, and means of communication. A functional committee is likely to be expected to plan events and perhaps even assist in the production of newsletters. In an advisory role, a marketing committee is likely to be comprised of local professionals whose lend their professional expertise to help shape your marketing strategy and its implementation.

Finally, if you don’t tell people what you need them to do, they are likely to do what they know how to do. It is for this reason that you need to recruit new board members with specific roles in mind. Consider the example above of the marketing committee. Strategy development, event planning, and professional expertise are separate and distinct skill sets. Imagine yourself joining a marketing committee because of your interest in social media strategy but you soon find yourself with the responsibility for securing gifts for a silent auction.


Socializing Board Members

How, then, do you effectively socialize new board members into the governance role once they are part of the group? The simple answer is to broaden the focus from the tree to the forest. Specifically, boards need to understand that orientation is one aspect of a larger, ongoing process of socialization. As such, I recommend that the board development process include the following components:

Screening: Socialization begins before an individual becomes an active member of the group. Effective screening ensures that there is agreement on the essential considerations, such as: a) organizational mission and strategy; b) key organizational values; c) nature of the board’s work; and, d) specific contribution expected of the prospect.

Orientation: Rather than opening the fire hydrant of organizational information, board orientation should provide enough information so that new members feel comfortable sitting at the table at the first meeting. An effective orientation program will include: a) a site visit; b) a review of the organization’s financial statements; c) an overview of the board and committee structure and roles; c) an overview of the operating structure.

Education: Whereas orientation provides the information needed by new board members to get started, board education is ongoing and is provided as needed. Specific education topics should be selected to correspond with the natural organizational and program cycles. For example, a brief lesson on the relationship between funding streams and programs would be helpful during budget formation. The same is true of nonprofit finance, which will make more sense in the context of the annual audit.

Training: You can’t expect someone to do something they don’t know how to do. Even if we all agree in principle that our board should focus on governance and stay out of operations, we may need to learn how to govern more effectively. Likewise, if we expect our board to be engaged in fundraising, we have an obligation to make sure that they know how to engage potential donors.


I once described the culture of a college campus as “what is going on when there’s nothing going on”. The same is true of nonprofit boards. In the end, the most powerful form of socialization is the way we behave in the normal course of things. It is about what we say and what we do. Do we hold each other accountable? Do we communicate effectively and honestly? Do we stay within our assigned lane?

In other words, the best way to ensure effective socialization is to behave like the board you claim to be.

Need Additional Assistance?

If you are interested in going deeper into your nonprofit strategy or if you wish to review your organizational strategy more broadly, click the link below to schedule a 30-minute phone or zoom consultation with Mike Stone.

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