Last week, I was privileged to facilitate a daylong “High-Impact Governing Work Session” involving the Board of Directors, chaired by Dolores Nason, the Executive Director, Andre Colaiace, and the Executive Team of Access Services, which provides paratransit services in Los Angeles County. One of the major topics we addressed during our day together was developing the Board’s self-management capacity. The board self-management function, as most of our readers no doubt know, consists of two key elements: developing the people on your board; and managing your board’s governing performance. One of the six breakout groups we employed over the course of our day together took a close look at an important facet of board human resource development: indirectly enriching your board’s composition. The breakout group brainstormed a profile of desirable board member attributes and qualifications and then identified practical ways to share the profile widely in the community. The following excerpt from Chapter 4 of my and David Stackrow’s new book, Building a Solid Board-CEO Partnership (Governance Edge, 2019), takes a look at this facet of the board self-management function.
A governing board isn’t an abstract organizational unit within the mother organization; it’s essentially living and breathing human beings. And the people serving on the board, more than any other factor, determine how effective the board will be in carrying out its governing responsibilities as set forth in its governing mission. Recognizing this, many – probably the great majority of – nonprofit boards devote substantial time every year – typically through the board’s governance or board operations committee – to filling vacant board seats with qualified candidates. Their governance committee develops a detailed profile of desirable attributes and qualifications to use in identifying and screening candidates to fill board vacancies. For example: successful experience on other nonprofit boards; commitment to the nonprofit’s mission; able and willing to commit the time to participate fully in the deliberations of the board and the assigned standing committee; a collegial style/team player; a high community profile; extensive community connections; and the like. And many boards we’ve served on or observed take this a step further by pinpointing particular sectors and groups that should be represented on the board (e.g., small business; CEOs; women; racial minorities; etc.).
We obviously are not describing a typical transit authority board. In fact, so far as we can tell many if not most transit board members view filling vacant board seats as completely off limits, both legally and politically, for the simple reason that the great majority of transit board seats are filled by external appointing authorities such as a county commission chair or mayor. And the few that aren’t appointed are elected. None are self-appointed, like all nonprofit boards are. “What can we do? It’s not our business.” These are responses we’ve both heard countless times in workshops when we suggest that transit boards should take responsibility for shaping their composition as a key self-management obligation and important path to strengthened board performance.
Granted, direct transit board engagement in filling vacancies isn’t in the cards, but many transit boards around the country have successfully strengthened their composition by taking legal, practical, indirect steps. The process always begins by the board’s governance or board operations committee updating the profile of desirable board member attributes and qualifications and, after securing full board signoff, sharing the profile with appointing authorities and more widely in pertinent community forums, as a means not only to generate interest in serving on the board, but also to put gentle pressure on appointing authorities to treat the appointment process as a serious leadership responsibility. Transit authorities are such a huge community asset in terms of budget and employment and are so critical to a community’s economic development and quality of life that we believe, very frankly, that a transit board’s failing to exert indirect influence to shape its composition would constitute governing dereliction of duty.