5 tips on building a board for your social enterprise

By SSE Chair of Trustees, Charlotte Young.

We have all heard horror stories of terrible Boards that occupy huge amounts of time – interfering with the day-to-day running of ventures, squabbling amongst themselves or bullying staff, demanding more and more information and taking the venture down pathways that were never part of the plan. We don’t want any of that! So here is some guidance to try and avoid any of these pitfalls.

People in a meeting drinking coffee

1. Get the right person as Chair

I have heard so many stories of SSE Fellows who have felt rushed into accepting an offer from someone who seems impressive and willing but who ends up being a complete nightmare both personally and for the venture. In fact sorting out this mess can completely derail the early years of a social venture. Because a Chair isn’t paid, you may feel that nobody will be willing to take it on but this certainly isn’t true. If your venture is worthwhile, there will always be someone who would find it rewarding to give time and effort. And they don’t have to be an all-round wizard – first and foremost you want someone who is sensible, mature, collaborative and interested.

2. All  Board members should bring their own special contribution

This may be experience in finance or marketing, legal knowledge, local contacts, deep knowledge of the field you operate in or perhaps personal experience as a user of your services.

3. Make being a board member engaging and rewarding

You don’t want passengers or bigheads; you don’t need big names; you want people willing to give you time and to get to know your organisation and its work. This will only be possible if you make it feel rewarding, if they feel they are really appreciated, if you let them see you and the organisation openly and honestly, not keeping them at arm’s length but confronting difficulties and building mature relationships. Good Boards are fun to be on. They have sensible meetings that are long enough to get depth into the discussions, but short enough not to be tedious. Their agendas are interesting and not full of operational detail. They don’t have formal meetings too often – at SSE we meet formally every 3 months with one of those meetings being an evening and full day when we discuss the future in depth. And between these there is a lot of activity. Some Board members oversee the finance and accounting, others get involved in topics related to strategy, most have involvement with students as tutors, selectors, speakers, judges in competitions and so on. They come to all sorts of events and keep up to date with what is going on and they appear to really enjoy their involvement.

4. Aim for continutiy

I am a great advocate of continuity because the more involved a Board member is, the better the contribution they can make. So on odd occasions we have discretely encouraged a Board member to go, because they didn’t seem able to make that contribution! But mainly we want our Board members to stay with us. So although we go through a 3-yearly election cycle, we don’t limit the number of times people can serve.

5. Identify potential new board members before you need them

At different times and phases of a venture’s life you need different perspectives in the Board and differing expertise and so it makes sense in many cases to have ways of involving people who might potentially make that contribution before actually approaching them about joining the Board. They will come from all sorts of sources and there are lots of activities to involve them in – especially as volunteers and as advisers. We want them to understand us and to see how they will fit in and we want to be able to bring in people who might not otherwise think of joining a Board. When a space is available on the Board, it is quite easy for you and your Chair to approach the person you want, who you have got to know and who has worked with members of your organisation. They have of course already been “softened up” for such an approach so know what they are committing to!

The essential requirement of a Board is that it adds to the effectiveness of the organisation it serves. If it doesn’t do that, then you have a problem, at the very least a waste of resources and your time, at worst a source of irritation and distraction! So think ahead, use your clearheaded judgement about people and their motivation and set up a worthwhile and productive mechanism for supporting your venture.

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