In our podcast discussion this week, we are chatting with Lisa Woll, CEO of The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment and the US SIF Foundation. We discuss topics relating to building an outstanding board by doing such things as changing how you evaluate your candidates, changing bylaws as needed, methods for developing board members.
Lisa has been the CEO of the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment and the US SIF Foundation since 2006, and has been responsible for strategic planning, developing a robust policy presence, expansion and diversification of funding, launching their national conference and creating the Center for Sustainable Investment Education. US SIF is the leading organization advancing sustainable, responsible and impact investing.
Prior to US SIF, Lisa was the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, an organization focused on press freedom and expansion of women’s roles in the media. During her tenure, the IWMF played a significant role in re-orienting the way journalism training was carried out on the issues of HIV-AIDS, malaria and TB in several African media organizations. Lisa also spent a decade working on children’s human rights. She was the director of the first international study to look at the impact of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and directed the Washington, DC office of Save the Children.
Lisa’s early career focused on domestic social policy and began in the New York City Human Resources Administration as an Urban Fellow and the U.S. Congress as a legislative assistant. Lisa is the founder of Suited for Change, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that provides professional clothing and ongoing career education to low-income women. She was a founding board member and former president of the board of The Women’s Alliance, a national membership organization of community organizations that increase the employability of low-income women. She was also Board President of Women’s Voices for the Earth, a national environmental health organization based in Montana. She has written and spoken widely on human rights and development, as well as leadership. She is a board member of the Children’s Environmental Health Network and the founder, along with her teenage son, of Advantage Ethiopia: Kids’ Tennis and Education Initiative.
In 2001, Lisa was named a Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine in recognition of her pioneering role with Suited for Change. She has received numerous other awards and has volunteered on other nonprofit boards and commissions.
Lisa holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in public policy and women’s studies from George Washington University.
You can listen and enjoy the full discussion with Lisa Woll in our podcast, but here are some of the highlights.
Adding Board Members – Expertise vs. Proven Traits
Although the usual advice for developing your board is to find people with the expertise that you are lacking, such as accounting or legal expertise, Lisa advises that your better board members may actually not be those with specific expertise, but rather “folks who really will quickly get involved, will be supportive and engaged, and a partner. Often times those characteristics are not something that’s knowable unless you’ve gotten to know the person.” Pick from those who are already involved in your activities such as from the volunteer pool. You already know they are engaged, have a sense of their working style, and if they follow through on projects. What makes a good board member is often an amalgamation of personal and professional characteristics that don’t easily fit into a grid.
The Crucial Role of a Board Chair
Lisa emphasized the critical role of a board chair to the success of an organization. The best organizations have both a really great CEO/Executive Director and a really great board chair. They need to quickly be engaged, get involved, and spend time talking with staff in order to quickly get a sense of the organization. They can then provide the kind of framework in which people can be engaged and work effectively. “I think the more people are engaged, the more they learn and the more effective they are as board members.”
Changing the Bylaws to Better Meet Current Needs of the Organization
In order to fully utilize the personality traits in the board recruitment process, the bylaws needed to be changed. Over time the process was refined so that they could more effectively marry the qualities needed for the organization to grow and to move in a strategic direction with their process for the board. So the bylaws around board recruitment were changed more than any other part of the bylaws. The bylaw changes were an evolution over time which was very responsive to where the organization was at and where they wanted to go. In addition, in order to pull in some expertise that they couldn’t find internally, they created an advisory council “that would not have a fiduciary role, but could be a kind of additional set of eyes and ears to help us develop.”
Building the Board as a Partnership Between Board and Staff
Lisa feels that the role of the executive committee in developing and managing the board is really important. It should not 100% be the responsibility of the CEO. The executive committee should share in that.
“We have encouraged board chairs and executive committee members to reach out to board members at least once a year. Talk to them about how their board experience is going. It is the role of the board to build the board. It is the role of the CEO to make sure that the tools are there. But I think CEO’s often put themselves in an over-worked and precarious place when they feel that the success of the board is dependent upon them.”
It is really important that an executive director have conversations with potential board chairs to understand what that candidate thinks about those types of responsibilities.
Ways to Develop Good Board Members (and Build Self-Confidence)
It takes time to develop good board members. One can’t tell from the first year in someone’s board experience what they are going to be like as a board member in 3-6 years. It takes time for people to understand their role on the board, gain experience and build confidence in that role. Help new board members find a path to being effective so they can learn how great it can be to be on a board. Work with them and mentor them and give them the tools to help them be effective
Trust Your Gut
When hiring staff, Lisa advises that you trust your gut. If someone responds in a way that makes you concerned, step back from hiring that person even if no one else picked up on it. Don’t ignore it.