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Board Culture Matters

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, September/October 2012 Brain Power

By: Kristin Clarke

Summary: Nonprofit consultant Nancy Axelrod's six steps to a better board. (Titled "Culture Shift" in the print edition.)

Association CEOs can feel unsure about how to shape board culture since the members involved are their own bosses.

But a healthy culture, says nonprofit board consultant Nancy Axelrod, makes all the difference. "While board structure and process may set the stage for effective governance, governance research across all sectors reveals that culture trumps structure in influencing a board's performance," she says.

Most participants in the ASAE Exceptional Boards program she teaches expect their boards to allocate time to what matters most for their organization's performance and success. But without a culture of mutual respect and inquiry, boards may degrade into passive or reactive mode.

"Boards that squelch challenging questions or constructive dissent are more likely to value dysfunctional politeness and groupthink over the capacity to explore divergent views in a respectful manner," says Axelrod. She calls on CEOs and chief elected officers to recognize their critical joint roles in fostering a culture that promotes civil dialogue, debate, and deliberation. These six pillars can help them do so:

  1. A positive governance climate created by the "tone at the top"
  2. Agreement among the board members on how they will operate as a group
  3. Opportunities for board members to gather informally
  4. Forums designed for continuous board education and improvement
  5. Articulation of governance competencies needed by prospective board members
  6. Intentional design of substantive, strategic, and interesting board meetings

"Boards that foster a culture of mutual respect, candor, and inquiry are in the best position to practice strategic thinking and planning," she says.

Contributed by Kristin Clarke, a business journalist and writer for ASAE. Email:

Nancy Axelrod will cofacilitate the ASAE Exceptional Boards program October 29–30 at Lansdowne Resort in Lansdowne, Virginia.

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