Podcast Episode: Build a Better Board

The following is a transcript of this episode of the Advancing America’s Libraries Podcast.

Julia: Today we're talking about how to construct a strong board with Nancy Davis. She is the retired co-founder of The Ivy Group.

Pam: Hi, Nancy. We're so glad you're with us. Nancy and I go quite a way back. Nancy has so much experience with building boards with various libraries, and she, in fact, was the founder of a board, were you not? The Library Foundation [of Delaware County]...

Nancy: Yes, one of the original library champions here in my county of Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

Pam: Tell us a little bit about that board.

Nancy: It goes back to the 1970s. We literally photographed the conditions in 28 different libraries here in the County trying to make the point with the elected officials and county commissioners that a lot more needed to be done. So, the history of library advocacy is a long-standing one here in this county.

Pam: The Library Foundation Board is relatively new, is it not?

Nancy: The Library Foundation Board sort of evolved from the original Friends of Libraries group. We started, unfortunately, just at the time that the economy was going south. It was a very difficult time to recruit trustees and to even contemplate raising money. In the last year or so, I'm the President of that library foundation, and we are trying to rejuvenate it. We're beginning to get donations. So, we're turning the corner.

Libraries now must strategically develop their boards so that they are based on skill sets.

Julia: Let's talk about the people who serve on library boards. Generally, what is the make-up of a library board and have you seen it change over time?

Nancy: Let's note that my experience recently with different boards suggests that it is getting much harder to recruit trustees. Volunteerism, in general, has declined. People are busier, and so it has become a lot more challenging.

In the past, when a profile of who was serving as trustees was done, they found primarily white women generally over the age of 50, often college graduates, and usually not in the workforce. These demographics no longer match the demographics of the many communities that libraries serve. There is a great push to diversify them.

Libraries now must strategically develop their boards so that they are based on skill sets. We need people who know marketing. We need people with financial management experience. We need people who understand buildings and building maintenance. Personnel issues. We also need to reflect the age and ethnicity of the communities that the trustees serve.

A qualified board candidate is a collaborative one.

Nancy: We encourage libraries to be engaged in an ongoing search for qualified candidates. You should always "be on the hunt". Who are the leaders in the communities? Who are the people who influence public opinion?

Pam: What qualities would you say should be avoided?

Nancy: You want to avoid people who have conflicts of interest. Unknowingly, sometimes boards recruit people with personal agendas. You don't want people who lack any connectivity to the community. It's helpful if people understand how to get money either from the public or private sectors. In the best circumstances, people are also positioned to give money personally. You want people who are visionary with a long-term perspective on what must happen.

Julia: I would imagine that personality plays into it a lot. You're looking for people who are collaborative, who can work together, and who are friendly. Are there certain personality traits that signal that this person will be an effective board member? Or that this person is not the right member of our team?

Nancy: Yes. You don't want a one-person show. Sometimes there are big dominant personalities who say, "Leave everything to me." They don't understand teamwork. They don't understand the importance of committees. They don't understand the importance of sharing what they are doing. They keep everything and everybody in the dark. Pretty soon what happens in those situations is that people say, "Why am I bothering? Why am I doing this?" Those dominant personalities, who tend to be egocentric, literally believe they can take care of everything. Then everybody just backs away.

Another dangerous situation is when somebody really has a very special personal motivation for being on a board. You run into situations where people have strong beliefs in what kinds of materials should be available. They want to exercise control over the books on the shelves or the movies that are shown or the programs that are offered. They are there because they have some type of personal crusade. Soon there are disputes about policies and procedures. It is a very destructive situation.

Board members must understand their community and have a customer-centric approach.

Pam: It's easier to say what you don't want. What makes an effective trustee?

Nancy: You're looking for people who have a clear understanding of their role, who are well-connected in the community, who can reach out and establish partnerships. They applaud the success of the institution. They applaud the success of what the staff does.

It is very important that the individuals who serve on the board understand that the library now must be very customer-centered. It used to be the library could write the rules, and people in the community would just fall in line and say "fine", but customer service expectations have elevated. Understanding that we must accommodate people's lifestyles, their preferences, their interests makes that orientation important.

Healthy boards have functioning committees. We want people who are interested in staying current on trends.

You also need people who are willing to talk passionately about why libraries are still important. I can't tell you how many meetings I have had with elected officials who turn to me and ask, "Why do we have to give you all this money?" If there is a finance committee, those people will be involved, but it is up to the board to understand the budget and decide whether to approve it.

Finally, strategic planning. When you talk to trustees about "now we have to do a strategic plan", there is groaning all around. But it is a trustee responsibility.

Keep trustees focused at the top-level and "out of the weeds".

Julia: Sounds like the library director and the trustees both have a role in vision and decision-making. How do you draw the line between what the director should do and what the trustees have the final say in?

Nancy: This is where people knock heads. The thing we have seen happen most often is that the board not only wants to make policy or supervise the director, but they also want to make incursions further into operations. There are instances where trustees have tried to personally supervise people on the staff. They go in and see what toilet paper is being used in the restrooms.

Pam: Seriously, Nancy! That level of detail?

Julia: Talk about being in the weeds!

Nancy: I couldn't make that up. Trustees sometimes can way overstep their bounds. I knew of a situation where there were micromanagers on the board, and they undermined the director. That has a terrible effect on the director's ability to manage day-to-day. It's a dangerous and counterproductive situation.

The board and library director must work hand-in-hand.

Julia: When we bring the library, the board, and the staff together for a strategic planning summit, we have often observed that the board members have never met the staff. The board members sit over here, and the staff members sit over there with very little interaction between the two. They are being asked to weigh in on the future direction of the library but have never met each other before. Is that typical?

Nancy: You do want trustees to be well-educated and able to address staff members. How do you make that happen? All trustees should have an initial meeting with the director when they come on the board. They should have an orientation. They should get a tour of the library where department heads are introduced. And the other thing that can be very effective is to bring in key personnel and have them on the agenda so they have an opportunity to have a presence with the board.

Once there is a strategic plan and budget and policies are approved, it is now the job of the director to direct the library in support of those board decisions. The Board supervises the director. The director supervises everyone else.

It is the director's job to communicate effectively with the board. The board should never, ever be surprised. They should never read about some major change or incident in the newspaper. They are the educational resource for the board. When the board is working on a certain initiative and they need background information to put things in context, it is the director's job to be that resource.

Setting term limits helps to prevent burn out.

Julia: It sounds like we have a pretty big "ask" for board members. You need to bring these skills, possibly some funds of your own, willingness to go get funds, involvement with the community, and engaged with the library. There are a lot of things that we are looking for and that we expect them to do as well once they're on the board. What about the people who are not showing up or are not cutting it, possibly disruptive? How do you fire board members?

Nancy: One of the things to look at is term limits. A remarkable number of libraries do not. That is a protection against having "deadwood" forever. Another thing we have done is at the beginning of each year, ask people, "Do you still feel the same level of commitment and the same willingness and interest to continue to serve on the board?" If someone is embarrassed to say they cannot do this anymore or they do not like the direction the library has taken, this is a way for them to gracefully say, "Now that you're asking me, I think my preference would be to step aside."

Pam: That's very helpful advice.

Nancy: Trustees arrive on boards in a variety of ways. Some places have elections. Sometimes they are appointed by elected officials, and in that case, you have to make sure you have a discussion with the elected officials about what the expectations are and what types of skill sets you are looking for so they may consider those when making the appointment. Otherwise, people are appointed with no interest in or connection to the library.

Sometimes the board asks for and solicits people to submit their names if they are interested. You have to have a way of getting and moving those people forward through the process. If they are seated on the board, you must ready to hand appointees an orientation packet with everything they need to know about serving on the board.

The other piece of advice I would offer is that at least once a year the board should give itself "the total quality control test". The group evaluates how well the board is performing. There could be a questionnaire and then the results can be discussed as a group. Don't just keep going without stopping to ask, "How well are we doing?" That's another mechanism to use to ensure people are being thoughtful about what it means to be a library trustee because it does count.

Pam: This has been really helpful, Nancy. The good, the bad, and the ugly will either affirm their choices or motivate them to make changes. I appreciate the time you've spent with us today.

Nancy: I enjoyed the interview and thanks for the chance to talk about something I love!

Ivy Takeaways

Pam: Nancy and I have worked with boards in nineteen (19) states and Canada. Boards come in all shapes and sizes. We've seen every permutation and combination. The really interesting thing about boards is whether they coalesce or bond. Julia, I know you've had some experience in that realm.

Julia: Yes, throughout my three (3) years as president of our local chapter of the American Marketing Association, we prioritized board bonding. We recognized that one of the things that would keep people engaged, active, and interested in showing up to the meetings was whether they felt personally connected to their fellow board members. We were a small, but mighty, casual board, and I think one of the reasons was recognition that it not only your board role that is important but relationships on the board. We tried things such as hosting meetings at local restaurants or breweries. I know that libraries might have some restrictions and cannot go down the street to the local pub for a board meeting. Not everyone can have as much fun as marketers do!  But the same idea--how are you facilitating relationships on the board and encouraging connections such as doing fun activities together before or after meetings?

Pam: It is an interesting point. It's about the goodwill, the momentum, the shared sense of purpose and shared commitment. You don't have to become best friends with fellow board members but getting to understand them on a somewhat personal basis is a way of also being able to anticipate their perspective on certain issues. You can begin to mediate through things and never be surprised really because of the relationship.

Julia: Our board of the American Marketing Association talked a lot about how we wanted to foster community throughout Central Virginia's marketing community, and if we couldn't foster that same sense within our own board, what were we really doing?

Pam: The same is true of library boards. Library boards are both representative of their constituents but take that spirit out into the community then how effective can they be?

This has been really interesting. I know Nancy has had a lot of experience throughout the country, and I really appreciate her spending some time with us. Thank you to Nancy!

Advancing America's Libraries Podcast episode on library boards with Nancy Davis