Board membership comes with a duty to the organization that can be both personally and professionally rewarding, but it can also be fun. To elevate that experience and grow the value of the board, legal aid firms should look for board candidates who see serving on a board as a chance to develop as a leader. Specifically, those looking to recruit new board members or to reengage the current board should ask: Do members have the skill set to lead? If not, is it something they can learn while they are in the position, while bringing value to the organization?
At Community Legal Services (CLS), we have worked to establish the board as an important factor of organizational success and a true leadership opportunity. Board members play a crucial role in helping the organization define itself as the needs of legal aid grow and change. At the core of the relationship is mutual trust and a shared understanding of how the board’s role plays out. Building a strong and engaged board that does not overstep the role of management can be challenging. As governing bodies, the responsibility that boards have can easily fall into the harmful trap of micromanagement. On the flip side, a board that is disengaged—where members do not contribute or the board simply rubber stamps the work of management—can be just as harmful. It is a difficult and necessary journey to find a balance that is right for the people involved and the firm’s mission.
We both came into our roles as board chair and CEO with CLS as lifelong learners. Since then, we’ve found there are four fundamental activities that help strengthen board engagement and drive organizational growth.
Four Ways to Ignite your Board and Transform Your Organization
1. Help everyone understand the board’s role as fiduciary.
In business, boards are governing bodies that help ensure a corporation achieves its promised return on investment. The etymology of the word fiduciary is based in the Latin word fiduciaries, meaning “something inspiring trust or giving of credentials.” As a fiduciary, a board is both legally and ethically bound to act in the best interest of the organization, regardless of whether it is for-profit or nonprofit. Instead of investors, legal aid firms have stakeholders—people who are expecting the group to deliver on the mission, including those who give money to help it do so. As such, legal aid organizations require a fiduciary, or a board, to ensure the firm is functioning at its highest level and delivering on its promises. This requires board members to have a business mindset and a solid understanding of an organization’s mission.
As a fiduciary, the board must cultivate a willingness to research and support decisions. Sometimes those decisions are unpopular, but proven to be what is best for the organization. A strong board that serves as a fiduciary and is understood as a fiduciary makes those decisions less controversial and helps foster alignment.
To fully embrace that role as fiduciary, all board members should be engaged in and support the firm’s mission within their role, which means volunteering at events and outreach programs and participating in the organization’s activities. Doing so strengthens the fiduciary role because it deepens board members’ understanding of the mission and how a firm is delivering on its promises. That deeper understanding enables board members to provide better guidance and governance. Likewise, employees should understand the benefit of having a fiduciary while living out the mission every day and engage them as trusted partners.
Legal aid organizations require a fiduciary, or a board, to ensure the firm is functioning at its highest level and delivering on its promises. This requires board members to have a business mindset and a solid understanding of an organization’s mission.
2. Allow for a coaching relationship between the board chair and the executive director and transparency at all levels.
The board chair’s role is to serve the whole organization, but the relationship between chair and director is a particularly important one. The board chair should go beyond just supporting or just supervising the executive director to acting as a coach and mentor. Doing so helps both parties practice leadership and establish a culture of learning throughout the organization. It also builds a trusted connection that defines a positive culture for the firm.
At CLS, fostering a coaching-based relationship has led to a stronger connection between the board and organization overall. The board strives to listen to how the leadership team wants to run the organization and then supervises and guides that charge to ensure it aligns with the mission. Likewise, the leadership team works to build a culture of communication and transparency with the board that helps them act as a fiduciary and protects the firm from liability. This builds trust and makes it easier to define the most important work that needs to be done. (Afterall, the work in legal aid is never ending.) It is the CEO’s role to listen to staff, define goals and objectives, and set the agenda for the organization, in communication and consultation with the board. It is the board chair’s role to support them in that effort, to ensure the agenda fits the mission and has appropriate buy in and support. We have found that a coaching relationship provided the foundation to make that possible.
Both of us also advocate for open, honest dialogue and idea exchange. It is important that board members and employees do not just say “yes” to everything, but it is also important that debate does not go to the extreme where decisions cannot be made. There must be a balance of mutual respect and common ground that builds trust. An expanded role of the board chair — from “boss” to “mentor”— allows us to support each other and others in building leadership skills and achieve that balance as an organization. At CLS, we found that having the CEO serve as a member of the board helps build teamwork and transparency. As issues ebb and flow and the culture of a firm evolves, the goal is to have a strong relationship between board and staff that supports flexibility and innovation.
3. Engage with the community — Be present.
Whether it is through attending outreach events, taking on pro bono cases or being active in fundraising (or all three), it is important that board members volunteer more than just attending board and committee meetings. This level of involvement makes board membership fun and meaningful, and it helps deepen board members’ understanding of the mission and the population legal aid serves. It is nearly impossible to be a good fiduciary without understanding the mission and seeing the work firsthand, and volunteering is the best way to do that.
Many legal aid organizations also interact with local volunteer bar associations and other nonprofits. Board members must play an active role in representing the organization in those contexts as well. For those thinking about joining boards, it is important to envision what it would look like to represent that organization and to volunteer for the firm. Likewise, for organizations looking to recruit members, it is valuable to look for those who they want to represent them and who can help further build their network.
It is nearly impossible to be a good fiduciary without understanding the mission and seeing the work firsthand, and volunteering is the best way to do that.
4. Give of your resources:
Giving of your resources as a board member doesn’t only mean donating money to the organization. Board members should also provide connections, ideas, time, and other resources they personally can offer to help move the agenda forward. For members who own businesses or run firms, it might mean engaging the staff from those organizations, as appropriate, to support the legal aid. For executive directors and staff, having a board that helps provide these resources can help build efficiency and effectiveness, so it is important to be open to and seek out those opportunities. Also, when board members give of their resources, it can help build advocacy and expand a legal aid’s reach in the community.
A strong board of directors is a powerful tool in propelling an organization forward. A board can provide leadership and guidance that helps remove barriers, builds relationships, and supports the firm in living out its mission—but developing a board that truly provides transformative leadership is not easy. It requires those participating to fully understand and engage with their role and to be there, be present, as they earn a board position listing on their resume. With an active, inspired board, all legal aid organizations will further their growth and reach.
A strong board of directors is a powerful tool in propelling an organization forward. A board can provide leadership and guidance that helps remove barriers, builds relationships, and supports the firm in living out its mission…
*Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of the MIE Journal with the Special Feature theme “On Boards.”
Ross-Andino, Kevin, and Jeffrey Harvey. “The Key to Developing a Strong Board of Directors: Move from Resume Building to Transformative Leadership.” MIE Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, 2023, pp. 47-9, mielegalaid.org/journal. Accessed 1 Sept. 2023.