As noted in Critical Issues #4: On Boards, the Individual Service Plan (ISP) is a simple but powerful tool to focus the capabilities of trustees on their fiduciary responsibilities.
Nonprofit boards typically under-use the capabilities of their members. Trustees are asked to spend their time on things that do not add value (e.g. sitting through meetings filled with reports that they could have read beforehand, or serving on committees that neither draw on their particular skills nor enhance their knowledge of critical aspects of the organization). However they are often not asked for the kinds of assistance that makes the best fit between their assets and the organization’s needs.
This is where the ISP comes in. It is an agreement between the board chair and each trustee based on a discussion between them about expectations for the coming year—and observations about the past year.
Of course, this conversation will be more effective if it does not come as a surprise. Mutual expectations are best set before a candidate joins the board, through discussions with the nominating committee and with the board chair, reinforced by an orientation and a trustee handbook. However, if these conversations have not been conducted, and an orientation and handbook have not yet been developed, the ISP may be more tentative, but an important first step.
The ISP process draws on several aspects of human nature, organizational leadership and common sense:
• Setting expectations for trustees is not the job of the CEO, who works for the board. Only the board chair is in a position to do this.
• Expectations need to be clear if they are to be met. Much apparent dysfunction or underperformance is simply the product of a failure to communicate effectively. By establishing a regular annual ISP process (perhaps following the annual board self-assessment), the necessary communication is given a structure, and thus is easier for both parties.
• Actually, expectations are a two-way street. Typically the reason trustees have been invited onto the board is that they have a combination of wisdom, expertise, and/or resources to offer. These strengths may not be fully utilized once the trustee is in place. In conversation with the board chair much can be learned by both parties, all to the benefit of the organization.
• There is often a substantial gap between the work of the organization and the life experience of trustees. The ISP process, along with the annual self-assessment (which does not generally involve a one-on-one discussion with the board chair) can identify and clarify issues that need to be discussed by the board as a whole.
There is no one formula for an ISP, but it is best distilled into a single sheet of paper that covers general expectations of all trustees (participation in meetings and board development activities, orientation of new trustees) as well as specific commitment to work assignments, a stated level of financial support, and outreach tasks.
There is no magic to an ISP. It doesn’t do anything very arcane. It just gives structure to an important area of leadership and governance that is usually given short shrift.