Getting the most out of your board – the Managing Think Tanks series

16 April 2013
SERIES Think tank’s governance and management 18 items

Most think tanks around the world have a board of trustees or directors that oversee the think tank’s functions and performance. The board can be a very valuable asset, and yet, problems abound within them. This is due to factors such as ill-defined roles, an ineffective use of its members’ talents, and the president (or Executive Director)’s shortcomings in working creatively with the board in order to get the most out of it.

This week’s Managing Think Tanks chapter deals with the structure and potential contributions of the board of directors – a chapter that presidents or executive directors of think tanks would do well to read, as it outlines methods that they can use to work more effectively with the board. Their main objective should be to get the board to spend its time advising on key issues for the development of the institution.

There can be two kinds of boards in think tanks: a management board and the board of directors. The management board is in charge of mostly day-to-day activities, and the board of directors is more involved in strategy and has ultimate fiduciary responsibility. While this is the standard model, there are variations influenced by the political, economic and social context that influenced the think tank’s origins. This chapter deals with the standard model.

Board functions are usually outlined in national law that governs nonprofit organisations. They are basically two: maintaining accountability, and safeguarding the public trust. Regarding the former, boards have to ensure that the organisation’s resources are properly spent. As to the latter, they must guarantee that think tanks are contributing to the public good (since they are awarded legal and tax advantages for being nonprofit institutions).

However, common board problems stem from board members undertaking functions beyond what they should, resulting in an inefficient use of time. Such problems are:

  1. Time spent on the trivial. Items of trivial scope or importance receive disproportionate attention.
  2. Short-term bias. The board concentrates on day-to-day items that could be handled by the staff rather than issues that may have much greater consequences for the organization.
  3. Reactive stance. The board responds to staff initiatives and information rather than asserts leadership (e.g., indicating topics for the meeting’s agenda).
  4. Reviewing, rehashing, redoing. The board spends too much time reviewing what staff has already done; this should be a management function.
  5. Leaky accountability. Board members “go around” the president to assign tasks to staff members, making it hard to hold the president responsible for results.
  6. Diffuse authority. The specific responsibilities of the president and board are not well defined, frustrating accountability.

In order to prevent these problems, a good starting point is to put together a clear statement of the organisation’s mission. When the board accepts it, indicators that measure the think tank’s performance should be added – for instance, conduct of policy research at a high professional standard. Once the board has been convinced that its role is to work on the big-picture issues of the think tank’s mission, the next step is for presidents and board members to clearly know their management responsibilities.

Adoption of a clearly articulated mission statement with corresponding indicators of accomplishment and Executive Limitations helps focus the board’s work on strategic issues.

Meetings can also be made more efficient by setting the agenda and distributing materials to board members in advance. The chapter provides examples of typical agendas for board meetings and typical materials distributed.

Also, it is also more and more common for think tanks (and corporations) to have smaller boards with fewer committees. This way, more work is done by the full board and there can be more open discussion and exchange. They can also better use their time during meetings, the frequency of which is recommended to be two times a year for well-established organisations, and quarterly meetings for younger institutions.

Having appropriate board members is also important for its efficiency: Each candidate for board membership should be an experienced professional with a strong reputation for integrity, creativity, and thoughtfulness. Beyond this, at least some members should have substantial experience in public policy development, social science research and evaluation, and corporate finance. It is also important to include someone with a background in working with the media or other form of communications.

And finally, a series of guides are available in order to help the boards conduct self-assessments.