Many boards call themselves working boards, indicating that they are more like a group of active volunteers than a governing entity. But what is the real distinction?
The truth is that working boards are governing boards. Just like governing boards, working boards are responsible for the big picture strategy and policies of an organization, but the members of a working board actually implement those strategies, whereas members of a governing board do not.
The Challenges of a Working Board
Working boards are most common in small organizations or community groups that do not have the funds to hire paid staff. The individual members of the board implement the organization’s mission and their reach is limited to the number of arms at the table. This administrative burden affects board members’ time and attention and can make the board less attentive to strategy and less likely to undertake larger initiatives.
Working boards flourish if the board has enough members and if it secures partnerships for bigger projects. However, in order to implement these measures, the board is still constrained by the time and energy of its initial members.
The best way to manage all these constraints it for the board to have an airtight system to break down strategy into manageable tasks, track progress and documentation, and minimize the “fluff” of irrelevant information or unproductive meetings. This relieves much of the administrative stress, so members can place more energy on the board’s strategic responsibilities.
The Role of a Governing Board
In contrast, members of a governing board are focused only on the big picture and work as a collective body, delegating managerial tasks to paid staff within the organization. The board’s members still have individual responsibilities, but they are not “boots on the ground”. Governing boards manage financial plans, not budget sheets. Working boards are responsible for both.
Making the Transition
When an organization has enough resources to hire a staff, a working board will transition to become a governing board. While this is an exciting process, it can be tricky to reassign members’ individual duties, especially if the board is disorganized or if members have become attached to inefficient methods that new personnel are unwilling to adopt. In anticipating such a change, it is important that the board can stand by its work, and that its members are organized enough to transfer over all necessary information and resources without letting anything slip through the cracks.
Regardless of the board’s classification, communication and organization are critical. It’s important to have a solid system to track and manage the activity of both the collective board and its individual members.
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