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Canales: Forging a Constructive Board Partnership

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Nov 15, 2012 1

On November 11, The Washington Post ran a collection of five pieces by leaders in the nonprofit arts sector touching on issues raised by the current plight of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Long a premier cultural institution in Washington – located across the street from the White House – the Corcoran is struggling to forge a sustainable future. Irvine President and CEO Jim Canales was among the leaders invited to share their views; he wrote about the importance of a constructive partnership between an organization’s chief executive and its board. His contribution is reprinted here:

Having served on and chaired many nonprofit boards, as well as having been chief executive of a large foundation for nine years, I know that when partnerships between a nonprofit’s board and its chief executive work well, they create the conditions for high performance. A constructive partnership:

  • Fosters engagement by the board. As the fiduciaries and stewards of the organization’s public trust, boards must be actively engaged in the key strategic issues facing the organization. As such, it is incumbent upon CEOs to shape board agendas in ways that create opportunities for board members to understand those issues, ask questions about strategic directions and then add value to the work of the organization.
  • Ensures open lines of communication. Engaging — not managing — the board is one of the primary responsibilities of a CEO. That begins with frequent and candid communication that seeks the board’s involvement at the right level. If open, honest, two-way communication does not exist, the risks of miscommunication or misinterpretation are far higher.
  • Demonstrates mutual respect. Far too many board/staff relationships are characterized by an “us vs. them” mentality. Staff sometimes view boards as an obstacle or necessary evil, and boards sometimes micromanage or second-guess staff decisions. That’s not a good starting point for a constructive partnership. The CEO plays the key role in setting the right culture in this regard. If mutual respect is lacking, it is worth asking whether the right people are engaged on each side of the relationship.

Like any human relationship, the board/CEO partnership requires both parties to devote the time and care to cultivating and sustaining a high-functioning partnership. When done properly, the results for the organization and — more important — those it serves will have been well worth the effort.

Read Jim’s contribution and the other pieces by nonprofit arts leaders in the Washington Post.

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Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine Foundation from 2003 to February 2014.

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Gil Garcia Monday, 03 December 2012

I echo the same sediments as CEO Canales. Every point he stated was right on target. As CEOs and EDs of organizations we see the Board of Directors in a more “hand off role” rather than a “hands on role.” The Board of Directors is an important extension of the organization and should be ambassadors into the community. The Board provides value by each individual board members’ network, knowledge, community resources, and experience in cultivating support for the organization. The Board is a watch dog for the organization to help avoid future challenges.
The greatest challenge with boards is finding and selecting the right mix of expertise that lines up with the mission of the organization. Many nonprofit boards are represented by individuals who may not be the best or first round pick but are the only ones willing to make a long-term commitment. The rule of thumb is that board members are not compensated by salary and many of the notable persons in the community do not have the service time available or are limited in their ability to fully serve on the board (often they may send a surrogate to the board meetings). In my walk with nonprofit organizations, I have found that boards operate with just a hand full of board members who actually attend meetings and assist in the carrying out of the organizations mission.
The board only plays a key role if allowed to and has the motivation to do so, but organizations that have an active board are blessed beyond measure.

The opinions expressed in the Comments section are those of the commenters and not necessarily those of the Foundation.

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