“How to Build a Better Board” program at PLA Conference offers key lessons

Morgan Miller, director of Cecil County (Md.) Public Library, and Dr. Paula Singer Vice President and Senior Consultant with the Segal Group,  gave lessons on “How to Build a Better Board” to a packed house at the Public Library Association (PLA) Conference in Portland March 23. They spoke of strategies to strengthen leadership in terms of engagement and diversity, and suggested tools for improving board outcomes. They also reminded the audience that identifying, recruiting, and training ideal candidates who can effectively govern will ensure that the library and staff perform at the highest level.

The session began with a broad description of traditional board roles and responsibilities, and then focused on how people, practices, and policies establish the “rules of engagement” for effective governance. The audience explored in small group discussions how this might apply to their own boards or commissions. Looking at board effectiveness in terms of representing the library to the community (and vice versa), the efficiency and effectiveness of board meetings, allocation of time, the relationship with the library executive director and more, they discussed performance strengths and areas where things might be improved.

The session offered another key lesson: the establishment of sound rules of engagement, policies, and procedures does not guarantee board effectiveness. Rather, success derives from the dynamic relationships of people who interact efficiently using their various areas of expertise and critical thinking to address community needs — present and future — and balance stakeholder expectations while taking appropriate risks. They also look at their own behavior and make appropriate changes when needed. To maintain these effective practices, boards need regular training opportunities that focus on topics such as policies, fiduciary responsibility, strategic planning, advocacy, and succession planning.

Miller and Singer suggest that effective boards build on some inherent characteristics: contextual, educational, interpersonal, analytical, political, and strategic. Keeping these in mind during recruiting, training, organization, and retention will help strengthen the board. Some tools discussed included commission/board buddies, interactive events, developing future leaders (e.g., a youth board), role-playing the perspectives of various stakeholders, establishing a workplan based on library priorities and strategies, retreats, outreach to the community, anticipating potential problems, and more.

Finally, the audience broke into small groups to play a board’s role in addressing a complaint from several community members about two LGBTQI-themed books, and discussed how effective boards would address such a specific complaint. The conversations included references to up-to-date collections policies, ALA policy, discussions about how to deal with conflicting views and how to guide an effective discussion, identifying the short- and long-term pros and cons, how to identify all community interests and the library’s role within the community as well as its role as a defender of intellectual freedom.

— Deborah Doyle, Board Member at Large, United for Libraries

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