Edgar Stoesz tell us how to be effective board members.


Veteran board member Edgar Stoesz has written this handbook to help us serve more effectively.

I am a member of Kuumba Lynx’s board of directors.

A name that combines the Swahili word for creativity with the lynx’s mighty roar, the Uptown-based organization works with youth from many backgrounds and throughout Chicago.  ‘KL’ members dance, rap, tag, recite poetry they’ve written and express themselves in a myriad other ways. 

Created by three dynamic young Chicago women in the late 90s who saw the need to provide a safe and creative space for young people, the organization has helped thousands of Chicago youth, and, in some cases, transformed and even saved young people’s lives.

For the past few months, I have been honored to serve on the board of directors of this remarkable organization.

It is the first board to which I have belonged, and, in order to do my work more knowledgeably and effectively, I have read Edgar Stoesz’s Doing Good even Better: How to be an Effective Board Member of a Nonprofit Organization.

The former chair of Habitat for Humanity International who had a nearly 40-year career within the Mennonite community, Stoesz is direct about bringing a religious perspective to his work. 

Those readers who would dismiss Doing Good even Better on that basis deprive themselves of the opportunity to absorb a host of specific and practical tips about how to hold tighter and better run meetings, navigate conflict, participate in thinking about the organization’s long-term health and direction, and help the executive director improve her job performance.

Stoesz makes it clear both that a dedicated, talented and diverse group of people are the foundation for effective boards and that this work should be fun a lot of the time.

He notes that board members must strike a balance between being supportive of the organization’s leaders, communicating with the membership and thinking about the fiduciary responsibilities one assumes when agreeing to serve in this capacity.

Board members should attend as many events as possible, not just to watch the performance, in the case of Kuumba Lynx, but to gather information about how the work is progressing.  In addition, board members should have the courage and clarity of mind to identify specific standards by which directors are evaluated and then hold them to those standards.

The section on meetings was particularly useful.

Stoesz had a number of suggestions that seemed like they would save time and ensure that the group spends as much time as possible on the most important elements.  To begin, he said agenda formation of the following meeting should begin as soon as the previous one ends.  That way, the board chair and the executive director can talk when the ideas and thoughts and energy are all fresh.

Stoesz also advocates for groups to start on time, to take no more than two hours to meet, and to consider abandoning the traditional rhythm of approving the minutes, old business, new business, set the next meeting time agenda in favor of accomplishing what can be done online between meetings so that as much of the in-person time as possible is spent on discussing critical issues.

Another positive aspect of the work is the numerous examples he supplies throughout the book as well as the series of appendices, that include elements like a sample evaluation for an executive director and tool for the board’s own self-assessment.

Stoesz also acknowledges that at times conflict does occur within groups. 

He discusses the various negotiating styles-from intimdiation to accommodation to compromise to collaboration-that people bring to these conversations.   While the identification of these approaches is neither original nor unique to the book, it is a helpful reminder of the role group dynamics and communication plays in the advancement or floundering of any organization’s work and mission.

Stoesz also talked about the importance of policies, applied in moderation so that they don’t become restrictive, in helping to shift work and interactions from an individual to a more systematic basis. Like all of his or anyone else’s points, his ideas need to be applied in the context of the particular organization with which one is working, and this one I thought was also well made and one that we would be well advised to consider.

A final element of the book was Stoesz’s emphasis on helping the organization and its leaders think about their future direction, and, if necessary, to help re-envision or reinvigorate people or whole groups that have either become stuck in their ways or have insufficient time to think or dream big.

Clearly written and accessible to a wide range of readers, then, Doing Good even Better has a host of useful information that helped me think about my new responsibiliites.  While some sections were stronger than others, I do recommend those who are considering or already serving on boards to read this book as a tool to help us think about the duty we have chosen, or are about, to assume.


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