by Jean-Paul Courtens
President, Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association
Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Biodynamics.
With this letter I hope to give you a flavor of how the board of directors views its responsibilities. How are decisions made? Where and on what are they based? Who sets the direction, and who gets to be elected to the board? As an informed member, you should be able to freely ask these types of questions and receive a proper response.
But before I go into this, let me clarify a possible misconception. The Association is a membership organization, but without explicit voting rights for members in its bylaws. While the Association is a membership organization, it does not exist simply for the betterment of the membership; the membership is a collective of people who believe that biodynamic agriculture makes an important contribution to people’s relationship to the land and food. We view our members as our collaborators in serving the greater good.
The membership is also the fountain from which the Association is able to draw talented and energetic new board members. According to our bylaws, one can only join the board if one is a member in good standing. Regional representation is viewed as an effective instrument as long as the players are comfortable playing in an orchestra. Board members who play their own tune (or blow their own horn) produce discordant music. Democracy has its purpose, but the Association needs to be able to select the best players capable of performing to the demands of the job.
First of all, when a person joins the board of directors, he or she is entrusted with legal and financial responsibility of the Association; personal interests and private gain matter little. Board members contribute time and insight and set the example by making a financial contribution.
Secondly, when the board envisions a direction for the Association, it cannot be based on anyone’s personal agenda, not even on the organization’s agenda, but rather based on the well-being of the biodynamic movement at large. The ability to select board members who can take their personal hats off the moment they enter the door of the Association is an important quality of a healthy organization. Serving on the board requires a selfless attitude and the ability to think into the future. Board members live with the question: how can biodynamic agriculture serve humanity and the earth most effectively? What is the specific contribution the Association can make towards meeting such a large goal? At the same time, the board and staff are sensitive to the Association’s audience. Just as a farmer is sensitive to his or her markets, a healthy and functioning not-for-profit board can only be successful when it understands its constituency, stakeholders, and members. This board conducted many conference calls, attended many meetings, and distributed a survey to gain a better understanding of the diverse biodynamic movement.
Thirdly, board members should have a natural ability to create an atmosphere of trust. At the heart of any healthy organization are true cooperation and support of its executive director, achieved by giving a clear mandate for action that allows for effective leadership.
In 2007 I wrote a document that was based on my experience as a trustee of the Columbia Land Conservancy, on extensive research about how other boards like Habitat for Humanity (which served as a wonderful role model) dealt with those issues, and on a publication called “Board Recruitment and Orientation” written by Hildy Gottlieb. The board adopted this document at our 2007 fall retreat in Junction City. We recognized that effective board members can only be selected after we have identified a profile of the ideal board member, when we are able to communicate a written job description, and after we have adopted a standard application, selection, and orientation process. To maintain an effective board, each board member conducts a self-assessment on an annual basis.
Our approach and philosophy on board responsibilities proved to be helpful as we searched for a new director. A director’s profile was developed in conjunction with feedback from key stakeholders. It was very important to get a good understanding of what the movement expected from the Association and its executive director. Our many hours of conversations paid off as we developed a very clear job announcement and profile. During the interview process we evaluated whether the candidate would be up to the challenge of building the infrastructure of the organization and organizing long-term regional activities while simultaneously having a strong handle on the business and financial aspects of the organization. We also kept in mind the profile of an ideal applicant that was developed from key stakeholders’ feedback. We stayed loyal to a particular interview format, as we were concerned that a change in format could possibly favor one candidate over the another. During the interview process we reached out to key stakeholders who had personal experience with particular candidates and inquired if they thought the candidate would be up for the challenge. The decision for two finalists was based on the agreed-upon standards, whereby personal favoritism could not be a factor. Two finalists were invited to come and meet with the board in Oregon, and our process led to a very fruitful decision whereby we can say with great certainty that Robert Karp is the absolute best candidate for the job of executive director. This board is energized and ready to meet the challenges ahead of us.
The following outline is based on the document called “Board Member Recruitment and Orientation for the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association.” The complete version of this document is available for download as a PDF document.
a) “Must have” criteria
- Passion for biodynamic agriculture
- Positive can-do attitude with common sense
- Involved and connected to existing biodynamic initiatives
- Willingness to commit time for board meetings, committee meetings, retreats, conferences
- Team player — works well in a group and is willing to set aside ego for the greater good
- Thoughtful in considering issues, a good listener
- Someone who is interested in leading and governing rather than helping out management on a volunteer basis, no micro-managers
- Someone who is not already over-committed
- Honest and ability to take criticism
b) “Wouldn’t it be nice” criteria
Here we can select from a number of factors that, combined, make up a diversified board. We strongly consider regional representation. We also consider qualities like the number of men and women on the board, the cultural heritage, the age, and the profession and experience of prospective board members that have a direct relevance on the Association. And yes, we ask whether they are able to make a significant financial contribution. Becoming a board member means having the ability to make a contribution to the biodynamic movement in general—with your time, your energy, your insights . . . and with your money.
c) “Never in a million years” criteria
Some people might be very accomplished biodynamic farmers, but they should never volunteer to serve on a board if their strong wills or egos will have a strangling effect on process.
- A big ego, domineering and quarrelsome
- Inability to sign a conflict of interest statement
- A poor sense of ethics and process
- Board members are all asked to sign a “board letter of commitment” and a “conflict of interest statement.” The latter statement prevents any members of the board from making any financial gains for themselves or for any other organizations they represent (as owner, member, director, or trustee).
- The new board members are given a board manual. (A detailed description of the board manual is available in the PDF version of this artickle.)
- The new board members will be mentored by a current board members through the orientation period.
Board member job description:
We adopted a detailed board member job description, and we require all board members to conduct an annual self-assessment. Both descriptions are available for download in PDF format.
Preparing the new board member to serve effectively:
There are three components to this process:
Each year, board members review their performance. We conduct this as a group, which allows us to provide feedback to each other. We take note of our strengths and weaknesses. Annual self-assessment allows us to check in with our obligations, as every board has its “blind spots” or tendencies to wander off on pet projects that might be more exciting than the primary responsibilities of a governing board.
Application and nominating process:
The Association welcomes new applications and nominations, particularly from the Southeast, Northwest, Mid-Atlantic, and the Rocky Mountain regions of the U.S., as well as from Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, as these areas are currently not represented. Remember to think of people who fit the characteristics listed above. Applicants need to fill out an application form and will be invited to a board meeting where a formal interview will be conducted. Prospective board members are invited to one of our semi-annual board retreats and are voted in by consensus by all current board members.