So How Do We Know If We Have a High Functioning Board: A Conversation with Lauren Samuel, Board Chair of The HOPE Program

I believe that the board chair role requires engaging the full board in the scoping, structuring, sorting, and resolution of problems.

–Lauren Samuel, Board Chair, The HOPE Program


Support Center recently had a chance to sit down with Lauren Samuel, the Board Chair with The HOPE Program, to discuss Lauren’s journey becoming board chair. In the process, we had a chance to discuss the many different facets of governance ranging from board culture and structure to individual and collective board accountability. 

Lauren’s journey actually began as a volunteer with The HOPE Program which today is a multi-faceted $8.4M annual budget workforce development organization with over 65 employees, 20 board members, and 25 associate board members. The organization’s mission is to empower New Yorkers to build sustainable futures through comprehensive training, jobs, advancement and lifelong career support. The HOPE Program’s holistic approach combines training, skills development, adult education, industry certifications, hands-on learning, and job placement with work wellness services and lifelong support. 

Back in 2001, Lauren began as a volunteer mentor/tutor with HOPE when she was matched with the organization via VolunteerMatch, a volunteer matching service. Lauren was drawn to the close to home organization’s focus on helping adults develop greater literacy, obtain high school equivalency, and broaden their career prospects. “I was in my late 20s,  a young professional with a college degree, working with someone who was 32, mother of three, whose eldest daughter was in high school. Tutoring high school equivalency subjects and Microsoft Office programs was an amazing experience.  To work with HOPE students and graduates as they invest in themselves despite their challenges humbles you. You think ‘What do I ever feel the need to complain about.”  You become grateful for your abilities along with a compulsion to share.

While Lauren appreciated the opportunity to volunteer with programs, there was also a sense that her background in business could also have an impact in the boardroom. Many would-be board members think of this as something you do upon retirement, but Lauren approached Barbara Edwards Delsman, former Executive Director, with the idea. “Send me your resume and I’ll talk to the board,” was the response. After meeting with the Governance committee and being nominated, Lauren was voted onto the board in 2010. Since 2020, Lauren has served as Board Chair.

You’ll recall that the title of this piece is “So How Do We Know If We Have a High Functioning Board.” While it would be difficult to define an absolute measure for a high functioning board, there are a number of different dimensions from board recruitment and onboarding to the functioning of board meetings and committees. Below is an informal review of some of the factors contributing to the high functioning of The HOPE Program board.  

During the conversation, we talked about how you engage a board when they only meet 4-6 times per year? And we spoke about the role that board chairs play and handling a role that is likely very different than your full-time job. Throughout the conversation, different aspects of shared leadership model emerged along with a throughline of how board chairs are uniquely positioned to foster connection, collaboration, and commitment. 


Fostering a Board Culture of Connectedness

The HOPE Program board meets 5-6 times per year. Lauren describes the board as slightly less “social” today than in years past, but there is a concerted effort to build connections among board members. “I remember going to a speakeasy together in Brooklyn, or we would gather at someone’s house for a HOPE related planning meeting. This was a part of how we built rapport with one another.” 

Today, The HOPE Program board continues to be collegial and collaborative, and there is intention around sustaining that board culture. Lauren also recalls being matched with a “board buddy,” and this practice continues to this day. The board buddy (or mentor) provides another point of contact and space for a new board member to ask questions to gain perspective or about “how certain things came to be.” 


Finding the Right Board Members

Lauren acknowledges that candidacies do fizzle out for The HOPE Program. “It may be that you have a lot going on in your life and you’re not able to focus at a given moment. And sometimes you need to be flexible, keep people warm, or sometimes you need to know that it’s not working.”  At The HOPE Program, there is a priority on finding board members who bring humility, responsiveness, and active participation. “We want our board members to understand that it is a privilege and responsibility to serve on the board. We’ve had board members take a leave of absence and return while others have stepped down and later returned to serve on an event or standing committee in a non-governor capacity.”  


Onboarding New Members

We spoke about the importance of onboarding new members. With The HOPE Program, there is a face-to-face meeting (in person or virtual) with new board members once they have a board meeting or two “under their belt.” This is a chance to ask questions, discuss the organization, its strategy, goals, priorities, and challenges, the make-up of the board and background on other board members. This is an opportunity to provide clarity and tips, reinforce expectations and provide strong encouragement to board members to meet in person. “It’s important to us that at least one board meeting a year is held at a HOPE Program office.  For others, we encourage board members to host board meetings at their offices and when available, participate in site visits to see the organization’s programs in action, engage with students/graduates, speak about HOPE at events, and meet with stakeholders.” 


Navigating Organizational Transitions

Oftentimes, major transitions are pivotal moments for organizations as well as for boards. Lauren recalls the merger with Sustainable South Bronx as one such moment. During this time, there was a heightened need to focus on communications and finances and integrate Sustainable South Bronx board members. This was also a time when there needed to be clarity around the strategy and future direction of the organization, and such times of transition require active board involvement. It’s worth noting that The HOPE Program is currently in the midst of an executive director transition which is another such moment that requires heightened engagement from boards. 

Understanding the Role of the Board Chair

Lauren talks about effective board chairs as “experienced leaders” who are action and results oriented. “Effective board chairs set examples, enable others, are patient, guide others to success, are passionate about the work, listen effectively, make decisions collectively, don’t jump in with the answers or tell others what to do, provide leadership, and work to remain impartial. Board chairs who are too eager to express their views can stifle collaboration and shared responsibility.” 

It’s also important that board chairs monitor body language for signs of distraction, confusion, or boredom. “When I see this, I’m eager to connect sooner rather than later. I don’t want things to linger, or we run the risk of losing someone.” Lauren also talks about not using voting to resolve disputes. “I think my job as board chair is to call the question and articulate what I am hearing.” Lauren also works to balance recognition for the highly engaged board members while drawing in board members who are developing or may seem less engaged. 

It’s also clear from this conversation with The HOPE Program, that the board chair also works to ensure leadership continuity and strong leadership in other roles. The HOPE Program has a well-defined Vice-Chair role who would share tasks with the Chair and may lead task forces along with a Governance chair who manages the board assets. While these roles aren’t necessarily successors to the chair role, this structure ensures that board members in these officer roles have the knowledge and understanding to be able to step into the board chair role. 


Addressing the Board’s Role in Fundraising

You can’t have a conversation about the work of a nonprofit board without talking about fundraising. And this conversation with Lauren about The HOPE Program board of directors is no different. What is different, of course, is the structure and intentionality that the board puts into its fundraising efforts.

There is an expectation around board giving and a requirement to either give directly or secure funding (commonly known as a “give or get” policy). The HOPE Program tracks averages for individual board giving annually, and there are one-on-one discussions with board members about their goals for the year. Everyone has a monetary target, and it’s clear that the board chair plays a role in establishing and reinforcing expectations around board giving. “If it’s not communicated and established as a goal, then we never seem to get there,” Lauren says. 

It’s worth noting that The HOPE Program also has an Associate Board. A fair number of organizations have created “associate” or ‘junior” boards that serve a fundraising function and can serve as a source for future board members. At HOPE, the Associate Board had a goal of raising $50K and raised $95K in its first year. In its second year, the Associate Board raised over $190K. There is a governance structure where the Associate Board Chair has an ex-officio seat on the full board to support coordination.


Facilitating Board Meetings and the Big Picture

Speaking of board meetings—often a sore subject for boards—Lauren shares what seems to be working best for the HOPE Program. Each meeting opens with a board member reminding others of why they joined the board and what inspired them. These are commonly referred to as “mission moments” and whether it’s a board member sharing their “why” at The HOPE Program or a story from a program, high functioning boards find ways to bring the mission and “why” of the organization into meetings.

But there is nonetheless board business to conduct, and high functioning boards find ways to balance efficiency with meetings that connect board members with the mission of the organization and one another. One approach at The HOPE Program that is widely used is a consent agenda where information is shared and accepted so that the meeting can focus on deliberations and decision-making. “Board meetings used to be two hours, but now we look to finish in 90 minutes. Much of the board’s work happens within the committees. If we are making a decision, we will have a draft resolution. As the board chair, my job is to set and structure the agenda,” says Samuel. At The HOPE Program, board meetings also serve as a platform for reminding board members of where they need to be engaged and reviewing key dates for the year. 

Lauren also reflects on the connection between individual meetings and the big picture strategy and direction of the organization and the board. “You choose the most important things and continue to work your plan and strategy. You evaluate how you are doing, and over time, your board will grow and evolve to meet its needs.” It’s most definitely true that boards change at a slower pace, and yes, with clear goals, board metrics, and periodic reviews, high functioning boards will grow and evolve. 


Speaking to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

There is a commonly heard question about increasing board diversity. If we diversify our board, aren’t we afraid that we won’t be able to achieve our give/get fundraising goals? The presumption is that board members of color won’t be able to give or get the kinds of dollars that white board members do. Research has shown that “key areas where people of color devote their giving to advance philanthropic aims are education and economic empowerment (Source: Five Insights About Donors of Color).” This is just one very clear example of how boards need to engage in diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

Lauren speaks about the board diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) committee at The HOPE Program. The committee has goals, meets regularly, and explores how board members work together to be effective allies. “How you deal with your coworkers is different than how you engage with board members,” says Samuel. 

Not unlike other boards, the murder of George Floyd fueled the creation of a board DEIA committee. With a goal of listening and learning, the Secretary of the board stepped up to co-chair the committee. The goal is to listen and learn, and the committee includes board and staff members who read books together and explore the experiences of the people with whom The HOPE Program works most directly. 


Leveraging Your Committees

High functioning boards set clear expectations regarding committees. Committees are spaces where the board and staff can collaborate. Committees are where the board work happens. Committees are the place for data gathering, analysis, and making recommendations to the full board. Committees can also model distributed leadership whereby chairs can delegate elements of the work. 

An effective and responsive executive committee is also critical for the high functioning of a large board. At the HOPE Program, the Executive Committee is composed of board officers, committee chairs, and the executive director. A functioning executive committee helps to ensure that board officers and committee chairs are closely connected to the organization and also serves as the committee space for data gathering, analysis, and recommendations to the full board. 

There is much more that you could say about high functioning boards and the critical role of the board chair. This article gave us some wonderful and concrete examples from The HOPE Program, and thank you, Lauren, for your willingness to share your story and more about The HOPE Program board with us.