Section 9: Engaging and Supporting the Board of Directors

How well your board of directors functions will have a big impact on your ability to do your job as executive director. You need to know up front that working with your board will take a great deal of your time. If you don’t dedicate the time and attention necessary to support your board to do its job effectively, it may well affect your job satisfaction and longevity in your position.[1] Board members are volunteers with limited time. They serve for a specified period of time (depending on your bylaws) and then they rotate off. A systematic process for recruitment, orientation, and training of new board members will enrich and expand the recruitment pools targeted and is required by ACL. Once onboard, new members need to be engaged, informed, and supported.

Board members are human beings. They may forget things, make mistakes, miss meetings, or fail to complete tasks. However, there are ways to enhance the performance and improve the relationship with your board. It starts with you as the ED being proactive.

  • Provide clear expectations and detailed information in orientation and ongoing training, so there are no surprises. Adopt policies and procedures that delineate board roles and responsibilities. Be especially clear on the board’s fiscal and personnel responsibilities. These are two areas where EDs and boards often have differing understanding and expectations.
  • Learn what your board members’ strengths, skills, interests, and motivations are. Keep them focused and engaged on what's relevant, and put their skills to use in meaningful ways. Encourage them to use their skills at the board level, not at the day-to-day management level.
  • Don't get invested in perfection. Be realistic in your expectations and appreciative of their efforts.

CIL boards are different from most other nonprofit boards because they must be consumer controlled. The majority of the members must be people with significant disabilities. This requirement has distinct challenges in recruitment: finding people who identify as a person with a significant disability, who also have the time and interest to attend meetings, and have expertise to share. The individual is not required to disclose the nature of their disability, only to certify that they do have a significant disability. And you and the board together must ensure that all meetings, buildings, geographic locations, and materials are accessible to every member.

Get Clear About Who Does What

If you get into a tug of war with the board about who’s in charge, your lives will be more frustrating than they need to be and the CIL will lose. Make sure that you as ED know the difference between governance/oversight and management/administration. Then you can help the board to stay on track. When there’s a mismatch of understanding, mismanagement and micromanagement can easily follow. Yes, the board is ultimately responsible for the CIL, but it is you who manages the day-to-day functions. Here is a handy list you can share with board members and reference yourself.

Board of Directors' Oversight Roles

  • Determines the CIL’s mission and purpose and ensures the CIL is operating in accordance with that mission and purpose.
  • Selects the ED and determines their job description.
  • Provides proper financial oversight (see Section 5), including approving an annual budget; ensures a qualified third party conducts audits or reviews financial statements; ensures the CIL’s assets are protected.
  • Ensures there are sufficient financial resources to conduct the CIL’s work.
  • Approves financial policies and internal controls, personnel policies, grievance & whistleblower policies; reviews salary information.
  • Hires financial auditor.
  • Ensures legal and ethical integrity by establishing and maintaining a code of ethics and meeting regulatory responsibilities (ensures appropriate paperwork gets filed with government agencies).
  • Stays aware of risk factors and mitigation strategies.
  • Ensures effective organizational planning, both short-term and long-term.
  • Recruits and orients new board members and assesses board performance.
  • Serves as ambassadors individually to the larger community, communicating a positive message agreed upon by the board as a whole.
  • Ensures that programs are in place and achieving objectives to further the CIL’s mission/goals.
  • Supports the ED and reviews their performance regularly.

Executive Director's Operational Roles

  • Attends board meetings and maintains open lines of communication with the board.
  • Keeps the board informed of what the CIL is doing and milestones in the strategic plan that it is achieving.
  • Prepares or oversees preparation of financial and programmatic reports to the board and annual budget.
  • Determines specific expenditures within the approved budget.
  • Hires, supervises, and motivates the CIL’s staff.
  • Responds to audit findings.
  • Prepares or oversees preparation of annual Program Performance Report to ACL; provides evidence of program effectiveness.
  • Sets compensation and benefits for employees within organizational policies.
  • Interfaces with key staff and board in the development of policies.
  • Develops and implements programs.

Shared Roles

  • Create a strategic plan and three-year work plan to guide the CIL.
  • Develop CIL policies for financial and personnel management, and other key elements of CIL operations.
  • Develop and execute a resource development plan to ensure the resources needed for the strategic plan are available.
  • Evaluate the CIL’s performance periodically to ensure it stays true to its mission and is effectively meeting the needs of consumers.

Start with a Comprehensive Orientation and Continue Training

  • Assist the board in orienting/training and getting new board members invested as quickly as possible. The more they understand about their expected role and the CIL, the better. Conduct orientation within four to six weeks after a new person is elected.
  • Provide a notebook with relevant documents during orientation for continued use. This could include: IL philosophy, history, and CIL history; by-laws; articles of incorporation; board “job” descriptions; policies and procedures; Title VII of Rehabilitation Act, as amended; programs; current approved budget; board and staff rosters; brochures; past and current board minutes; current financial statements and latest annual audit; meeting dates/times for the year; glossary of acronyms; vision and mission statements; current strategic plan and work plan; Program Performance Reports (PPR); State Plan for Independent Living (SPIL); SILC information; and website and social media addresses. Ensure that information is current, accessible, and is updated regularly.
  • Review these materials with them or assign a mentor who can also make introductions and provide assistance during the first meeting or two.
  • Ask them to fill out a “contact form” so you have their current mailing address, email address, and phone number (if they want texts). Ask them how they prefer to be contacted.
  • For on-going professional development, ask board members what they would like training on. Make a list of topics for their review. Some CILs provide training on various topics for 20 – 30 minutes at the beginning of each board meeting with a short video and/or printed materials.
  • Budget for and provide opportunities for board members to attend national conferences and trainings, such as the National Council on Independent Living, the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living, and IL-NET national on-location trainings.
  • Introduce the website and suggest courses and materials to review. Invite board members to webinars that CIL staff are attending. Encourage them to take IL-NET RapidCourses which can be completed at their own pace.

Effective Communication between Meetings

  • Inform the board BEFORE any news about the CIL goes public – whether it’s good or bad.
  • Invite board members to community events where the CIL is involved. Even if they don't typically attend, they want to know what you are doing in the community.
  • Make sure board members know about, like, and follow your social media pages. Post happenings on social media so board members, consumers and others can learn about events and activities. Board members who like and share your posts provide a broader community impact.

Resources for a Deeper Dive

[1] Bell, J. et al. (2006) Daring to Lead 2006: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and The Meyer Foundation, pg. 9.