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What is Your Ideal Board?

By: Laura Edgar, Institute on Governance

Across the private and not-for-profit sectors, there has been a movement toward smaller, more competency-based (and less ‘representative’) Boards of Directors.  The recommended size for a board is in the 11 to 16 people range in the not-for-profit sector, and seven to 10 people in the private sector, though there are boards, both smaller and larger, that function effectively.

With this trend toward smaller boards, there are additional tools to support effective board composition.  One of the most commonly used tools is a board profile, sometimes called a board competency matrix.

A board profile defines a board’s desired, or ideal, composition.  A profile will typically include the ‘core’ skills or competencies required for all board members, much like a baseline, ‘specific’ competencies or expertise desired of one or more board members, as well as other desired characteristics.  The board profile is a tool to guide board recruitment efforts, as well as to identify potential skills gaps that could be addressed through training, etc.  It is not considered a policy that must be strictly adhered to, since it is not always possible to find and recruit the desired skills and expertise, but rather a guide to inform and focus recruitment and retention efforts.

Typical core skills required for all board members might include analytical and critical thinking, financial literacy, strong inter-personal communication, and strategic visioning and planning.  Commitment to mandate is also considered core; you want individuals on the board who believe in, and are willing to work to support, the organization.  Many profiles also require previous board experience, though depending on your sector, community size and other factors, this may or may not be realistic.

Specific areas of expertise will vary more widely, since they should reflect the nature of the organization.  That said, most boards will desire in-depth financial expertise, risk management expertise, external communications or public relations expertise, and perhaps governance expertise.  In addition, depending on the organization and sector, most boards will want some industry-specific areas of expertise, human resources expertise, public policy expertise and/or board members who can help fundraise or open doors for the organization.

Finally, the profile will also generally include some broader characteristics, which may include geographic representation, gender balance, age diversity, and ethno-cultural diversity, among others.  Depending on the nature of the organization and its membership or shareholder(s), there may also be expectations regarding representation on the board, though it is important to note that even if a director is elected as a ‘representative’ of his or her constituency, his/her legal obligations are first and foremost to work in the best interests of the corporation as a whole.

So you’ve developed a board profile – now what?  The next step is to assess your current board and its knowledge, skills and other characteristics against the ‘ideal.’  Based on that assessment, you can determine your board learning priorities and identify your board’s recruitment goals.

Finally, with the movement toward competency-based boards, applying the profile means first focusing on core skills and specific expertise when recruiting and then, to the extent you are able, addressing the ‘other characteristics’ (almost like an overlay to the skills).  So, if you need financial expertise, find a business leader or accountant who also meets your core requirements.  If he or she also happens to be from the north and you need that at the board table – great!  

But, what if you are a representative board?  A profile can still be of benefit, but it needs to be applied differently.  If, for example, your board must be elected from your membership, the profile can be used to communicate to your members what the organization / board needs and members can be asked to reflect on these needs when soliciting nominations for election and during the election itself.  You cannot control the process, but by communicating effectively you can inform members and fulfill your obligation to work in the best interest of the organization. 

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