How to create an active and diverse board

23 Sep 2022

Whether you’re creating your first board or you’re making the most of the one you have, it’s really important to get the basics right. But what does a ‘healthy’ board really look like?  

Let’s look at some of the challenges entrepreneurs face with their boards and how you can take action to create an active, efficient and useful board. 

Why do we have boards? 

Legally, social impact organisations have boards to support with accountability and safeguarding. They are made up of people who have an interest in the project and help keep it on track. They have oversight of the finances and staffing, they work on the strategy with the CEO, and they are the final authority for any in-house disciplinary issues. 

Aside from the legalities, the board is there to support the founder and leader with running the business, acting as a sounding board for ideas and advice. Each person brings practical skills to support business development, and they are all committing to putting time and energy into the project. It is a carefully balanced recipe of skills, personalities, and expectations, and that’s often where challenges happen. 

Find out more about social enterprise boards

What are the challenges? 

A disengaged board 

A disengaged board turns up to meetings, is told information and does little else. The biggest problem with a disengaged board is that the social enterprise doesn’t benefit from any of the skills or expertise that they bring. That leaves the CEO/founder feeling isolated and with no real sense of being held accountable. 

An overbearing chair 

A chair who doesn’t create room for contribution and discussion will almost always create a disengaged board. They may be a good chair but perhaps don’t understand the value of inviting all members into the conversation, which leads to disengaged and dissatisfied board members. 

An over involved board 

This is a board that wants to be overly involved in the day-to-day running and operations of the organisation. While it’s great to have a board that’s willing to muck in when needed, having one that wants to be involved and updated on the minutia of daily business can bring things to a standstill and create tension and mistrust with the leadership team. 

An unskilled board 

This often happens when people are picked based on their personality rather than their skills. Businesses end up with a wonderful group of friends but little in the way of practical know-how or support to get the business where it needs to be.  

How to avoid the problems 

Choose your board consciously. Look at the skillset you have as a leader and work out what’s missing.  

There are three key factors to recruiting new board members: 

  1. Ability to support the business with skills currently missing from the board/organisation
  2. Support and enthusiasm for the vision and mission of the organisation
  3. Compatibility with the group – are they a good fit in the dynamic?

Communicate expectations 

Be really clear about what is expected of a board member. Treat it like a job description – include the time commitment, duties or responsibilities, expectations, and benefits it will offer them personally or in their career. 

A good induction 

When and how will you meet? A good induction includes all these details, communication structures, information on the other board members etc. It could be helpful to include some background on the business and staff team, details of the business model, and where they can go for extra help and resources. 

Regular time to connect with the rest of the board 

Giving board members the opportunity to connect as people encourages better communication, more confidence and inclusion. Which in turn creates a more engaged, more cohesive board to support your organisation. Consider quick check-ins at each board meeting, or something more formal like regular board away days. 

Regular audits and training for your board members 

Keep them engaged with check-ins about where they feel their strengths are and signpost to upskilling opportunities. It also lets you monitor the health and effectiveness of the board as a whole to ensure the business has the right support.  

Create space for engagement 

It’s an easy trap to fall into where the CEO gives a report and then you all move on. Make sure there is active space for questions and actions so that the board are fully integrated and engaged with the business and decision making. 

What about diversity and why does it matter? 

Diversity is about making sure that a diverse range of voices and experiences are driving your organisation. It’s about doing the best for your whole community and bringing them into the conversation.  

Diverse means more than one type – background, lifestyle, age, reasons for being there, perspective, skill set. What diverse looks like will vary from organisation to organisation but it is important for all boards to have a range of perspectives and experiences. 

What might diversity look like? 

A client/user, a member of the team, members of communities that you want to work with/include, someone from an adjacent business, someone from alternative ethos business, a younger person, an older person, and different genders. 

What ‘diverse’ looks like for your board should reflect your community/audience, your staff team, your ambitions, your mission and your societal views 

Does your organisation have a board? Got tips on creating an active and diverse board? Let us know @SchSocEnt on Twitter 

 By Jessica Holliland, SSE’s partnership development and communications freelancer