Skip to main content

If your board is struggling with engagement, the solution lies in defining your board’s culture. Without a well-defined culture, your board is set up for confusion, miscommunication, and ultimately, disengagement. It’s not just an option—it’s a necessity.

I often see that an organization has values and a defined culture, but the board is not running itself with those values and aligned behaviors – it has not defined its culture. A truly engaged board discusses its culture frequently and understands how its culture impacts the organization. Board culture encompasses the shared values, beliefs, and norms that guide how board members interact with each other, the executive director, and the organization. Without this clarity, board members lack direction and purpose, leading to frustration and disengagement.

But defining board culture is more than just listing values; it’s about aligning those values with specific behaviors and expectations. This alignment ensures that every board member knows exactly what is expected of them and can be held accountable. Without this, values like collaboration and inclusion become empty buzzwords rather than guiding principles.

“Defining and living by a strong board culture is not just a nice-to-have; it is essential for the success and sustainability of any nonprofit organization.”

Take collaboration, for example. Many boards aspire to be collaborative, but without clear definitions, this goal is nothing more than wishful thinking. To make collaboration real, establish guidelines for how members and the executive director interact. Set up regular, structured communication channels such as monthly check-ins, quarterly strategy sessions, or dedicated time during board meetings for open dialogue. Ensure the executive director and board members work together on key decisions by forming committees that include both board members and staff or by making major decisions collaboratively rather than unilaterally. Define a clear process for addressing and resolving conflicts collaboratively, perhaps through mediation protocols or fostering a culture of open, respectful dialogue where differing opinions are valued and considered.

Inclusion is another critical value that requires immediate attention. For inclusion to be more than just a word on a mission statement, you must articulate how it will be practiced, especially in challenging situations. Commit to recruiting board members from diverse backgrounds and ensure your recruitment processes are transparent and inclusive. Create an environment where all board members feel empowered to participate fully by setting ground rules for meetings that encourage equal participation, providing training on inclusive practices, or appointing a facilitator to ensure all voices are heard. Establish clear expectations for how board members should handle conflicts, particularly those involving diversity and inclusion issues. This could involve training on cultural competence and unconscious bias or setting up a grievance process that allows for the fair and respectful resolution of disputes.

Accountability is non-negotiable. Implement regular self-assessments where board members evaluate their own and their peers’ adherence to defined values and behaviors. Incorporate values-based criteria into board member performance reviews to ensure members are evaluated not only on their contributions but also on how well they embody the board’s values. Provide ongoing training and development opportunities to reinforce the importance of values and behaviors and to help board members continuously improve.

When a board cannot hold itself accountable for its values, it undermines the organization’s mission. A board that claims to value inclusion but fails to address conflicts inclusively sends a message that these values are not truly important. This lack of alignment erodes trust and morale, both within the board and throughout the organization.

An unengaged board often reflects a lack of defined culture. By clearly articulating and aligning values with specific behaviors, you can create a cohesive, accountable, and engaged group of leaders. This alignment not only enhances board effectiveness but also strengthens the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Defining and living by a strong board culture is not just a nice-to-have; it is essential for the success and sustainability of any nonprofit organization.

Act now. Ask us about The Hive Collective’s Board Engage program.