Getting to the heart of board functionality for Social Enterprises

A traditional board asks: ‘What is best for our organization?’ but an impact-driven board asks: ‘What is best for the desired social impact we seek?’

A simple shift in focus, you might say, however, this shift requires meaningful conversations with each board member and a clear understanding about what this entails from a board functionality perspective, along with full agreement from all board members.

If you are starting out with your board formation, I hope this article will guide that process. If you already have a board in place, I understand it can be a little more complicated, but I urge you to put a plan in place to move to an impact-driven board, the benefits will far outweigh the work to get you there.

The following are some of my guiding principles:

1. Impact first, organisation second: be clear on impact then look at how the organisation can deliver to the impact you seek.

2. Shared Values: a varied board has may advantages, varying personalities, expertise, backgrounds etc bring a host of positives to any organisation, but in my opinion, shared values with the organisation, and ideally, the founder and/or management team must be central.

3. Know, Listen, Be Guided: Each organisation comes with a team of people with a variety of roles, and a community of people directly impacted by the work of the organisation. The board must know them, listen to them and be guided by their voices. Simple processes can be put in place to achieve this effectively.

4. Sustainable Mindset: guiding all action and outcomes, how do you move towards, maintain, or strengthen, the organisations long term sustainability. This requires a high level of experience, knowledge and understanding within your board to help you to drive your social enterprise froward regardless of legal structure.

5. Involvement: Although you can prosper with a mixture of active and passive board members, it is more difficult to do so with a full passive board. Talk to your board members about their involvement: time commitment, areas of interests, areas of expertise etc.

6. Expectations: Be clear about expectations, encourage your board members to be clear about their own expectations of what it means to be on your board. The majority of issues that arise with boards are usually connected in some way to differences in ‘expectations’, avoid these by being clear up front, trust me this will help you to avoid very difficult situations down the road!

People join a board for a number of reasons, for some it is to contribute and bring value, believing in the vision and impact of the organisation, for others, it can be personal identity, status or career building. Being clear about what you want from your board, makes the recruitment process easier for both sides and again, reduces some common issues that can arise down the road.

Stating upfront you are seeking an impact-driven board is a good way to show you are clear about what you require and also indicate the thought processes upon which the organisation is built. This helps to attract and work with the right people for you, and you, for them, remember its a two way relationship you are building.

Finally, be proud of this approach, you are part of future business thinking and operations. You are leading the way and others will follow. Being impact driven is powerful, it’s exciting for people to get involved in and innovative in a way that stretches people’s thought processes. Social Enterprises need this type of approach to utilise their boards to their full potential, the social and commercial business world is ready to embrace this shift in focus, and so too are its people, be a leader that puts impact at the heart of all you do!

by Pauline Gannon – Co-Founder & Director of Impact at Social Impact Ireland