by Phillip Henderson | President, Surdna Foundation

Surdna in New OrleansImages by Shawn Escoffery

Board learning is mission-critical.  It’s one of the most important components to a high functioning organization that is often overlooked and underappreciated.  At Surdna, especially given that we are a family foundation whose board members are not professionals in the fields we fund, board learning is essential to ensuring that board members have the information they need in order to govern the foundation effectively.

There are a number of tools we use to help the board learn.  We convene quarterly board meetings, we use committees to allow board members to take a deeper look at various aspects of our grantmaking and operations, and we have cultivated a culture of dialogue and conversation that helps board members build a sense of trust and rapport with the staff and with each other.  All of these methods help the board gather information, digest it, and guide the institution to put that learning to work. 

A few years ago, after a long hiatus, the Surdna board decided to meet in retreat, believing that retreats are another type of learning tool that accelerates the kind of relationship-building that is core to a high-functioning board and institution.  The retreat was a great success, spawning ground-breaking board/staff working groups on impact investing, program committee function, and our upcoming centennial.  Important work that had been contemplated, in some cases, for years.

This success led us to agree to have a board retreat every second year.  And it led me to suggest to the board that there might be another experiment that was worth considering:  a full-board site visit to a place where Surdna has been particularly active.  Thus was born the idea of using each September for site visits and retreats in alternating years.  While board members have routinely participated in an ad hoc way in site visits with staff, last month we took our board to New Orleans for the first full-board site visit in a generation.  New Orleans is an enormously compelling place.  The city and surrounding region has benefitted from eight years of intensive Surdna grantmaking, and several prior years of lighter-touch funding.

Of course, site visits on their own cannot provide a comprehensive picture of a grantmaking strategy, and visiting a city for a couple days does not allow for the full understanding of a place.  The magic is to understand site visits as one kind of learning that is complemented by other tools such as grantmaking strategy documents, annual program implementation plans, committee meetings, background readings, etc.

As we planned for the site visit, we encouraged our board to come prepared for the experience by reading through the materials we developed for them, including analysis from staff, biographies of those we would meet, and descriptions of the organizations that would host us.  We also suggested a few ways to make the most of the visit:

Quality and depth of partnership:  As elsewhere, partnership has been a key asset to our work in New Orleans.  We encouraged our board members to engage one or two of the partners they would meet in a substantive conversation about their work. And to use these conversations to get a feel for the quality of the partners we work with and to hear from them how Surdna has shown up in their work to-date.

Relevance of our key program themes:  We chose to work intensively in post-Katrina New Orleans for two reasons.  First, there was tremendous need in a place that is uniquely American.  Second, we saw the unique opportunity to work across arts and culture, economic development, environment and community engagement.  As our board spent time learning about New Orleans, we encouraged them to reflect on how we’ve shaped our work here, how resonant our work is in this place, how it has informed our work in other places, and how our experience in New Orleans has shaped Surdna’s work more broadly.

Learning together:  One of the elements that is most powerful about an all-board site visit is spending time together, learning and experiencing a new place, and listening intently to the questions other board members ask and the conversations that they have with each other.  We intentionally designed the visit to allow for opportunities to build an even more cohesive and powerful board.  And we saw many instances of a deeper understanding among board and staff that developed through side-bar conversations, shared social time and experiences.

This full-board site visit was another exciting experiment for us.  And we found that it matched our ambition.  It deepened board members’ understanding of how Surdna has worked in this particular place, helped them see how we work with partners, and helped them become a better board. 

I’m already looking forward to September 2018 when we do it again!

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