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Setting the Tone with a Board Culture Statement
By Janet Rapp, Executive Director, Apra

One of the central functions of a board of directors is to develop and maintain an effective governance culture that outlines its association’s bedrock principles. Apra, an association which represents individuals who conduct research in support of fundraising activities, had already developed a strong culture, but it had not been systematically documented. So, four years ago, the board decided to develop a board culture statement.

While some board culture statements are created in response to personality clashes, lack of direction, or some other form of dysfunction, this was not the case with Apra. The board had historically operated very smoothly and there was mutual respect among members. Instead, the idea came about initially in response to queries from new board members who had questions about the board and how it functions as a team. The Apra board realized that while it had a mission statement that outlined its goals for the association, it needed a document that gave clarity to how board members should work, act and treat one another. Ultimately, this statement would serve as so much more than a resource for new board members; it would guide all board members in everything they did.

What Do We Stand For?

As a first step, the Apra board appointed a task force to develop a culture statement made up of board members. As a starting point, the task force asked itself, who are we, what do we stand for, and what do we want to be? To find the answers, the task force examined its qualities and attributes. The task force realized that at its essence, the board could be summed up with one word—collegial.

As a significant percentage of Apra members work in college and university fund raising operations, collegiality is literally in their job title. As such, they are team players by nature and, to succeed in what they do, a collegial spirit is necessary. In fact, one of Apra’s strategic objectives is to advocate for Apra members’ value to their teams as experts in research. As a result, the board felt strongly that the culture statement should reflect that concept.

Beyond that, the board wanted to convey to new and future members that the Apra board was one that encouraged debate and welcomed differing opinions. It believed strongly in the idea that before a decision was made, the board must look at a variety of different perspectives. After all, diversity of opinion is an essential component of a high-functioning board. When more voices are heard, there’s a greater likelihood that different perspectives will be considered. That, in turn, can lead to innovative ideas and solutions. Having said that, the board also felt it was necessary to state that—after robust debate and discussion, conducted in a collegial and respectful environment—it must ultimately be of one mind when a decision is made.

The task force developed a draft culture statement and presented it to the full board. After feedback and a number of rounds of edits, the board agreed to a final version.

It states, “We, the Apra Board of Directors, seek at all times to: strive to achieve excellence as an organization that is focused on advancing the mission, the membership and the profession; foster an environment that promotes open communication, respectful debate, and informed decision-making; engage in proactive leadership development and succession planning; collaborate with each other, staff, volunteers, and industry partners; and approach the serious work of the organization in a spirit of collegiality and fun.”

In addition, there are a set of operating principles that call for board members to “value one another’s time and energy by being prepared and on task; actively contribute thoughts and ideas while honoring dissenting opinions; seek consensus and recognize that some decisions will not be unanimous; take ownership and emerge as one voice once a decision has been made; focus on strategic decision-making; offer constructive criticism and ‘devil’s advocate’ positions to foster thoughtful and spirited debate; and allow for reasonable risk-taking associated with innovation.”

Re-Affirmed at Every Meeting

The board is so committed to its culture statement that it is read aloud before every board meeting. It is also posted in the board information package for each meeting and published in the new board orientation manual. This is to make sure that the principles it espouses are always understood and never in doubt. It sets the tone for meetings and encourages respectful dialogue and unified decision making.

“We saw it work to perfection during our last board meeting in July, the first for several new Apra board members. By reading this statement out loud at the start, it gave new board members the confidence to speak up and contribute to the conversation right away,” said Apra Board President Liz Rejman, who is associate director, fundraising operations at Pathways to Education Canada. “If you don’t set the tone, you could have new board members be reluctant to share their ideas as they get comfortable in their role, which is wasted time. We heard some wonderful new points of view that immediately set us on a positive course for this new team,” added Rejman.

It’s important to note that a board culture statement should be a living document that the board should review, and change, with regularity. Certain board experiences will help develop the statement and make it even more useful and vital as time goes on.

Creating a culture statement is a worthwhile exercise that all boards should consider. As Apra learned, developing one starts with understanding the essence of the board and reflecting its unique challenges, attributes and goals. The key is to have these discussions with your board, whether it’s done through a task force or a board retreat, and then let the conversations guide you. You’ll be glad you did.

  Janet Rapp serves as the executive director of Apra, providing strategic and operational leadership. She also serves as the transition director for client organizations that select SmithBucklin as their association management partner. In that role, Janet leads the transition teams responsible for the complete transfer of knowledge and successful onboarding. In addition, Janet serves in an oversight role for several client organizations in SmithBucklin’s Business + Trade Industry Practice.


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