NLN4: Board Transitions with Carol Gundersen

CarolGunderson headshot 2 2014 compressedIn this episode, Carol Gundersen with the Food Literacy Project shares about board transitions.

Here’s a few highlights from the podcast.  Listen to the full podcast below.


The Food Literacy Project’s mission is really about inspiring a new generation to build healthy relationships with food, farming, and the land.

And we do that through a wonderful partnership with a local farmer. And we utilize an eight-acre vegetable farm as an outdoor classroom where since 2006, over 25,000 youth and families have planted, harvested, and cooked together as part of our hands-on education programs.

It’s good fun to, on a daily basis, to be able to observe the wonder of children and families really getting their hands dirty and exploring the story behind their food.


We have a really wonderful thing going right now on our Board. And they really sort of hung in there throughout the natural organizational development that I think any new organization goes through.

So that now they’re in a really great place, they are board members, they hold each other accountable, which I think is really significant. And they have a very substantive and really healthy discourse. So that, they don’t always agree with each other, they don’t always agree with me, but we have like I said, just a healthy discourse.

And I think they are really meaningfully engaged in governance. They understand what it means and they do it beautifully.


There’s that metaphor about the ship – that the board is supposed to steer the ship and the staff is supposed to row or paddle. Going along we’ve all had to learn how to figure that out and negotiate those differences about which decisions are whose to make – the board letting the staff do its job and likewise, the staff letting the board do its job.
In a lot of new organizations board members are doing many things. Not just acting as board members in a governance role but also really involved in things like writing our curriculum for our education program, and spreading mulch [LAUGH] literally in the garden. In order for them to really embrace their governance role they had to step away from those other things.

It’s certainly possible for a board member to do both roles, but it takes a lot of communication and even then it can be tough for board members to do both: to have the big picture perspective that a board member needs to govern effectively and also, to be involved in some of the minutia of day-to-day work.

Everybody knows that the Board is responsible for approving an annual budget and authoring a strategic plan, and making big decisions on behalf of the organization. And everyone also knows that the staff is responsible for executing the mission of the organization each day. But then there are a whole bunch of other things that are sort of gray areas and we’re still figuring that out.

That I can go to a board member or to the whole board, and say, gosh, I’m looking for your input, it’s my decision to make but I need your help on making a good one. And that’s a really important role I think that a board can play. But I think being clear about those distinctions is important.

It’s important with our staff too that everyone on our staff understands what decisions are theirs to make and which ones aren’t. It’s as much an art as it is a science I think, but.


One thing that’s been a really key lesson for me is to not assume what goes without saying. And it can be really hard to anticipate what does and doesn’t go without saying. It’s just an ongoing journey for everyone to understand what their role is and what authority they have to make which decisions.

Sometimes it can feel like over-communication to say the things that we perhaps thought might go without saying, just say them. [LAUGH] Sometimes it’s helpful to clarify. Like I said, for me to go to the board or a board member, and say listen, this is a decision that I need to make but I would love to hear your thoughts about it before I make it.

And so that’s been really useful, having patience with what I perceive to be a really natural and organic process of organizational development. I think a lot of organizations go through it and for me, what worked was just staying with it.


The other thing I would add is emphasizing the big picture. As our board was shifting from a hands-on board to a more governance focused one, it was useful for me to emphasize the big picture whenever we were reviewing a financial statement or anything like that.

And then we can get into some of the minutiae of specific line items or whatever. But starting with the big picture with any communication with them. Helping everybody understand that we’re there to look at, was the big picture.

Many board members in their jobs are managers and are accountable for those details in the workplace. That big picture viewpoint is not so easy to get to. I have to do a brain shift every time I kind of go into a board meeting because I’m so consumed each day with dealing with whatever is in front of my face. I suspect this is challenging for board members who are busy all day doing other things as well.

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