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The Conversation: Final Thoughts on JCC Governance

Q&A with Ann Eisen, retiring Vice-President, Community and Governance Consultant, JCC Association

Interviewed by David Posner, Vice President, Mandel Center for Excellence in Leadership and Management, JCC Association

(date of interview: July 13, 2011)

David: How does it feel preparing to retire?

Ann: Since 1973, I’ve had an association with the JCC Movement. I’m passionate about JCCs. I feel  I’ve contributed something. It’s time to hang up my suitcase.

David: You were a volunteer at the JCC in New Orleans before you came onto the staff. What’s the story there?

Ann: In 1973, the executive director was Avrum Cohen. I was sitting on the board and he asked me if I wanted to come to work for the JCC. My initial response was that I didn’t want to work the long hours that JCC employees work. 

Right after he asked me, I was with my mother, who was a passionate volunteer in the Jewish world. My father had been a past president of the JCC. I told her about his offer and that I told him no way. She looked at me skeptically and said why did you say that?  You have a chance to serve your community in a different capacity. She was a wise woman, and I joined the staff. I had the fortune of being able to move up.  I was in the adult department and that moved me into leadership development and a community liaison kind of person. Then I became a program director. Then I was the assistant director.

David: What are some of the accomplishments you were most proud of?

Ann: Before I left, we did a capital campaign. The building was very old and needed a total facelift, and we needed more space. We had a weight room that was little more than a cage.  We were losing membership very fast. We did a strategic plan. We looked into whether to move the building or stay there (we stayed) and then did a four million dollar campaign. We did a total renovation of the building and nobody has looked back since.

David: There is a history of a long-serving, solid leadership in that community, both lay and professional.

Ann: Preceding me, it was an assistant director who became director; then I became the director from the assistant job, and then my assistant director became the director. It’s very nice to know that the community respects professionals.

David: When you joined the JCC Association staff, you were hired as a community consultant. Was the governance specialty something that you had from the start?

Ann: It evolved. When I first came to work, I spent two training sessions with BoardSource, the organization that offers the most info to nonprofits about governance. From that, I realized we were evolving in the movement. We were still in very traditional boards, and it was time for us to move forward into a different model. There were people who did some consulting for us who reinforced that. The more I was able to understand, the more I felt it was a direction we needed to go in.

David: You do work with JCC bylaws.

Ann: Board assessment, assessment of bylaws for board structure purposes. Helping people understand the rhyme and reason why people do board structure the way they do. If I was to take anything away from it, it would be that boards need to be planful and forward thinking and that can’t happen unless you stop and think about how you do business.

David: When you say planful, you mean intentional?

Ann: Yes. There is a governance guru named Richard Chait who wrote a book called “Governance as Leadership.” His main theory is that boards have to be intentional and stop and think about why they do business the way they do it. They need to understand what they value and what’s important to them.

David: I’ve heard a definition of governance that it’s the manner in which boards choose how to exercise their power and authority over the organization they are empowered to govern. Would you say that’s accurate?

Ann: The piece that is really important is group action. You’re not an individual on a board. You are part of a group. You bring your individual talents and your individual expertise. Hopefully you leave your individual hat at the door. It’s how you function as a group that measures whether you are a good or excellent board (see document The Ten Basic Responsibilities of JCC Boards in this JCC Leader).

David: You referenced an older, traditional style of management for boards. What would that look like now?

Ann: There is a distinction between governance versus management. Governance is looking at the world of the JCC from the balcony and seeing the big picture. Management is getting involved in the everyday things that today boards don’t have to do.  When we didn’t have enough staff or expertise, boards were our staff and a source of expertise. Today we have professionals from all kinds of fields. We need board expertise in different ways now. To provide oversight and input instead of telling staff how to do the job. That’s really the difference between governance and management, oversight versus doing.

David: When you initially started with boards and governance, what were you working on? Were you trying to extricate them from the management process? Were you working with structures?

Ann: I did a general governance presentation last night after not doing one in a while. I found that I had to throw away my old PowerPoint’s and start again because I think boards are more sophisticated today than when I started.

David: Is that because they are more sophisticated or because they want to be more efficient and effective and so devote their time to things that truly matter?

Ann: Depends on the board. They have heard the basic terminology, so if you start too basic you will lose them. We have to have an expectation that they can do better. It’s about engaging them in thinking.  It’s about understanding the expectations, what we do after we understand it, and how we make it translate into real practice and behavior. A lot of that is about intentionality. What I advocate is a board-building cycle where you identify board members, cultivate them, and educate them. You identify when it’s time to take them off. It goes in a cycle. We need to be very intentional about the way we look at our boards. What we need in the future. For example, if we are going into a building phase, then we need someone to help us with zoning. When the next cycle comes along, we need to be intentional about the way in which we ask them to come on the board. (See document The Board Building Cycle in this JCC Leader)

David: When JCCs ask what the right size of the board is, you give them an answer that is a little unconventional. You don’t give them a number.

Ann: I tell them they have to do what is right for their community. I do believe there should be a range.  It shouldn’t be one fixed number. If you have 25 board members and someone resigns and you don’t fill the seat in six months, then you would be living outside the bylaws. So you should have a range.  I do tell people I think a comfortable range is somewhere between 20 and 32, but they need to decide what is important to their community. If having a big board means they could raise more money and that’s an important part of their JCC, then that’s what’s needed. But be sure the board is making decisions, not the executive committee. Do not have an executive committee that has a board instead of a board that has an executive committee.

David: At the end of the day, it’s only the board that is empowered for governance, not the executive committee.

Ann: If you have a board that feels like a rubber stamp or was never asked for their opinion or if you have a board that feels they are on the outside of the decision making, they are a disengaged board. They will be so disengaged that when you really need them, they are not able to help.

David: BoardSource has these 12 principles of governance. In your opinion, what are things that boards truly need to focus on?

Ann: Partnership with the executive director is paramount. The responsibilities of boards fall into three categories.  Twelve principals of governance fall into this also. What I like about the 12 principles is that the language is very modern and that people can relate to it.

First, boards are responsible for the resources of the institution. They are responsible for the public’s trust. The first one is about the financial resources, which has two sides. One is oversight of the finances, and the other side is fundraising. Without the two, the board is not doing its job.

The second one is human resources. On one side is the volunteer leadership. The board has the responsibility to be fresh, appoint officers, have succession plans, and to make sure people go off the board when they are supposed to. On the other side, are the professional resources. The board is responsible for ensuring they have excellent professional resources. The executive director hires everybody, but they hire and fire the exec. The tone they set as partners to the staff is the tone for the work of the board and the rest of the agency. The salaries they pay, the personnel code, all of those things the board passes at some point.

The last is what I call the resource of clout and reputation. If you are not planning or caring about mission, you are not going to have a reputation. If you are not putting together a board that people think is strong, caring, planful or passionate, you’re not going to have clout. If you don’t have clout, you won’t have people who come to your programs, you won’t have people who give you money. If you think about it and we take the 10 responsibilities and 12 principals of successful boards, each one of them falls in those three somewhere.

David: You’ve been doing a lot of board assessments. What is a board assessment and what are the benefits?

Ann: Board assessments are conducted online. They are anonymous and when the data comes back, I’m able to analyze what the board says about themselves. We are able to give feedback to the board about the way they see themselves working as a group, how much trust there is in the board room, and the relationship with the executive director.

It’s broken into four pieces: mission and strategy, insuring resources, board composition and structure, and oversight functions. The value of the information I give them comes from them.  We are able to give them recommendations about how to address their strengths and weaknesses. My job is to interpret the report and make recommendations on how to proceed.

David: Alan Goldberg is going to be your successor.  Have you given him one most important piece of advice?

Ann: The advice is that this is a world of nuance. There are no blacks and whites. I believe boards should have term limits. I feel strongly about that. Our recommendations should be about what we think they should discuss. Sometimes we say what best practice is.  I don’t use best practice, I use good practice. I am staffing a governance task force that Dori Denelle and Alan will finish, which includes writing a document to be used by JCCs. It’s going to be a guide to board self-governance and evaluation.  It will pose the questions that boards should ask themselves and give some direction about what is good practice so they can discuss and make intentional decisions. That will roll out at the Biennial.

David: What are some of the things you are looking forward to do in retirement?

Ann: Having the space to think about what I’m going to do. I’m looking forward to have a couple more times a year with our grandchildren who don’t live where we do. I’m going to play it by ear. If I’m not busy enough, I’ll probably do some consulting maybe in New Orleans. But I don’t know. I’m just going to let it happen.

David: Thank you!

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