On Board with Camp

Ann Sheets

Camp boards — what should they do? How do we train members of a camp board? And how do we recruit good board members?

To find the answers, we must first start with governance. Many camps have some type of governing or advisory body, whether a board of directors, advisory board, or camp committee. However, the name alone doesn’t define what the group should do, how members are recruited, and the relationship with the camp director or organization’s CEO. If your camp has a board or any type of volunteer advisers, it’s important to know what authority they have and how that authority is granted. This is usually found in the organization’s governing documents, most likely the bylaws.

There is no one-size-fits-all model of governance for camps, as every organization is unique. Some boards choose to be very hands on and involved in program and operating decisions. Others take the approach that management is responsible for all operating decisions and that the role of the board is to set direction and hire the CEO. Regardless, boards need to analyze what works best and periodically review how they are operating and if the camp or organization is advancing the mission. It is imperative that the camp director/CEO and the board agree on the governance model for the camp or organization and have a thorough understanding of the responsibilities of both parties.

Board Responsibilities

Regardless of the governance model, there are several responsibilities that any board must carry out. The board should define the mission, adopt policies, hire and evaluate the CEO, and oversee the financial health of the camp. Ultimately, legal responsibility for the actions or inactions of an organization rests with the board. Bruce Hopkins of BoardSource describes the established principles of nonprofit corporation law that divide board members’ responsibilities into three parts: the duty of care, the duty of loyalty, and the duty of obedience (2009).

The duty of care refers to that care which an ordinarily prudent person would provide in similar situations. It simply means that as a steward of the organization, the board member should provide reasonable care when called on to make decisions for the organization. In practice, board members exercise their duty of care by attending board meetings, staying informed, and carefully reviewing all information provided to them, such as the financial statements and audited financial reports.

The duty of loyalty means that a board member must always act in the best interests of the organization, never using information for personal gain. In practice, board members exercise their duty of loyalty by avoiding conflicts of interest, being thoroughly prepared before making decisions, and taking an active role in deliberations of the board.

The duty of obedience requires that board members be faithful to the organization’s mission. A prime example of obedience is ensuring that when donations are accepted, the funds will be used in furtherance of the mission and goals of the organization. Board members are exercising their duty of obedience by reviewing governance documents periodically, making decisions without undue haste or pressure, and requesting legal consultation when necessary.

Because of the passage of the Sarbanes Oxley Act and recent revisions to the IRS Form 990 that is required of all nonprofit organizations, some have suggested that boards have a fourth duty — the duty of transparency. Many organizations, including the American Camp Association (ACA), have added governance pages to their Web sites (see www.ACAcamps.org/ governance), which include bylaws, articles of incorporation, policies, and information about the board and its processes. Having these readily available on an organization’s Web site is an excellent way to fulfill this duty of transparency.

Board Culture

But what about recruiting people to serve on boards? What do we do to make our board effective? We need to know the culture of the board: the history of the camp, its habits and traditions, where the camp is within organizational development, what the founders intended and how active they are, and the strengths of individual board members. The board itself must determine how the board culture will be built. How many board members should there be? Should there be task forces or committees? What should the terms of board members be? Who should elect the officers and what should the length of their terms be? What happens if we need to remove a board member? Can we use technology in board meetings?

These are questions that every board needs to answer from time to time. Within our association, the ACA National Board of Directors answered these questions and made some significant changes. Several years ago, all members of the ACA national board were camp professionals. In 2008, as the association’s 20/20 Vision was emerging, the ACA national board looked at itself and decided that ACA needed to have a broader representation. As a result, now half of the ACA national board members are independent directors, i.e., professionals in areas other than camp.

Like the previous ACA national board, many nonprofit boards consist principally of “insiders” — those with a vested interest in the organization’s success. In a camp setting, there are numerous reasons to recruit camp alumni and camp parents for board roles. “The downside of limiting the leadership ranks to ‘insiders’ is that a board drawn from insiders almost always has a limited perspective on the opportunities and risks facing the organization,” notes ACA national board member Melanie Lockwood Herman, who also serves as executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She adds, “Although traditional board recruitment has focused on ensuring representation from various professions (e.g., accountant, lawyer, insurance broker), many boards are beginning to look for diversity of perspective as the most important factor in identifying great prospects for board service. The commitment to seek independent directors can help bring the diverse points of view needed to help a camp survive and thrive in the years ahead.”

Given the governance structure of your board and its individual culture, recruiting and building a board with a diverse perspective is not as simple as developing a checklist of attributes represented on the board. However, it will be helpful to have an overall profile of what your board looks like and compare it with what you want it to look like. One common way to begin looking at the attributes, skill sets, and demographics of your board is to complete a board profile, using a grid similar to this.

Often, there is a board development committee in charge of board recruitment and training, although in some situations, the board itself assumes that role. On a regular basis, the group responsible for board development should ask questions such as these:

  • What demographics do we have in abundance (age, gender, geography, ethnicity, camp connection, etc.)?
  • What demographics are we missing or do we need to strengthen? Why are they important?
  • Are key segments of the camp’s clientele represented on the board?
  • What professions / industries / spheres of influence do we have in abundance? What are the important spheres of influence?
  • What are the professions / industries / spheres of influence we are missing or need to strengthen?
  • Taking into account the challenges and opportunities facing our camp, what characteristics, skills, experience, background, spheres of influence, and competencies will we need on the board for the next three to five years?
  • What does the ideal/future board look like? What behavioral/leadership competencies and personal qualities are important for our board members to have?
  • What is the current composition of the board?
  • What gaps will the board need to fill over the next few years?

Board Recruitment

Answering these questions will guide you in identifying the needs of your board. Once you have determined those needs, it’s time to cultivate potential board members. For many years, this step was accomplished by simply asking board members to recommend their friends. But there are many more good ways to cultivate and recruit potential board members. As the director, consider that every person you meet or come in contact with is a potential board member. Read your local newspaper and notice who is in the news and appears to have skills that would be beneficial to your camp board. Get to know your community and the persons who have influence. Most board members will not come to you and ask to be on your board. You and the board development committee will need to seek out persons who will bring the competencies, skills, and connections you need to your board.

As you identify board prospects, find out who knows the potential board member and what they would bring to the board. Working with your current board, determine who of these individuals should be invited to a board recruitment event. That event may be lunch with the board chair, a visit to camp, or a special board prospect meeting. When you are given the opportunity to tell your story about camp and why you want these prospects to become board members, use the time wisely. Explain the expectations and responsibilities of board members — and don’t minimize the requirements. Include the time commitment, dates of board meetings, and share the culture of your camp and the board.

Ask questions of the board prospects, and let them ask questions of you and your board. Make sure that board members are involved in this process, because volunteers relate best to other volunteers. Find out if the board prospect is willing and prepared to serve on your board and if they have the time to commit. Be honest with why you want and need them. Is it because of their influence with potential donors? Do you need an attorney who can provide legal advice on occasion? Are you looking for camp parents who have connections with other parents? Let them know if board members are expected to be donors and at what level.

Board Orientation and Training

Once board prospects have been recruited and elected to the board, it is crucial that you provide a thorough orientation to both the camp and the board. Utilizing experienced board members, explain the history of your camp, any current issues, financial data, bylaws, and general organization. Describe the responsibilities of the board, whether or not board service includes participation on committees or task forces, and provide an introduction to other board members and key staff.

One of the most important aspects of working with a board then comes into play — how to engage the new board member. Find out their interests and availability and begin involving them in a meaningful way. You may want to assign an experienced board member as a mentor for the first few months. As board members become engaged, they will see the value of board service and of what your camp is doing. Provide whatever education they need to do their jobs well, exploring any issues that arise. If you are in a community that offers workshops and seminars on board service, take advantage of that training when available.

Board Evaluation

Board members need feedback, as does the board as a whole. The entire board should evaluate its own performance and encourage individual self-assessment. You may want to have the board participate in a formal board assessment through BoardSource or some other organization. Some board members may find that they are not a fit or simply do not have adequate time to be active, so be sure that you provide a way to let members resign, if needed. It is much better to have a resignation from someone who can’t participate and open up a board position for another person than to leave someone in a position and never see them.

Eventually, it will be time to rotate persons off of your board. This may be tough, especially when you have good board members with whom you enjoy working. It’s a generally accepted practice that board members need term limits (two three-year terms is a common limit), then a break in service. Your bylaws should specify the length of board terms and the number of consecutive terms that a member may serve before needing to rotate off the board. Developing new leadership is important, too, so help prepare members for leadership roles by encouraging them to accept positions of increasing responsibility.

As board members complete their service on a camp board, take time to recognize their contributions to the board and the camp. Keep your former board members on your e-mail or mailing lists so they can continue to see the work you are doing through your organization or camp. Those former members are likely to remain as camp supporters, having invested their time and talents through board service.

Getting volunteers on your camp board will not only provide support and guidance for camps and organizations, but strengthening the board will ultimately make camp better. Like any facet of camp management, it takes time and concerted effort to develop, recruit, and utilize a camp board to its fullest. You’ll find the results are well worth the time and effort spent in board development.

Board Development Resources

Many resources exist on how to work with boards. The author recommends:

Governance as Leadership — Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor (BoardSource, 2005).

A separate nonprofit organization, BoardSource (www.boardsource.org), exists to “build exceptional boards and inspire board service.” One of their newest publications is The Nonprofit Board Answer Book: A Practical Guide for Board Members and Chief Executives (BoardSource, 2012), which provides answers on board functions, structure, member selection, meetings, the fiduciary role, board-staff relations, and organizational change.

Other Web sites with excellent information about board service include: Nonprofit Risk Management Center (www.nonprofitrisk.org), GuideStar (www.guidestar.org), and the Independent Sector (www.independentsector.org).

These resources and others can provide guidance in understanding the world of nonprofit governance and board development.

Reference

Hopkins, B. (2009). Legal responsibilities of nonprofit boards. Washington, DC: BoardSource.

Ann Sheets chairs ACA’s Board Development Committee. She served as ACA’s national president from 2005–2008 and is the senior vice president at Camp Fire USA First Texas Council in Fort Worth.

Originally published in the September/October 2012 Camping Magazine. 

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