Dr. David Stevens – Board Governance

“The best way to find out whether something’s gonna work is not to sit here and talk it to death meeting after meeting. We’re not gonna bet the farm on it, but let’s go try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” -David Stevens

[00:00:00] David Stevens: I told my staff again and again that I expected them to fail. I said, if you’re not failing some, you’re not skating close enough to the edge, you’re not taking enough risk.

The best way to find out whether something’s gonna work is not to sit here and talk it to death meeting after meeting. We’re not gonna bet the farm on it, but let’s go try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. 

[00:00:22] Tommy Thomas: Today, we’re continuing the conversation that we began last week with Dr. David Stevens. If you missed that episode, Dr. Stevens enjoyed a distinguished career as a physician and senior administrator in a medical mission hospital in Kenya. He finished his career as the CEO for the Christian Medical and Dental Association. 

As is the case with many of my guests, Dr. Stevens came to me on the strong recommendation of a previous guest, Dr. Sandra Gray – President Emeritus at Asbury University. Dr. Stevens was the Board Chair when Dr. Gray was the President.

Dr. Gray’s suggestion was that I interview Dr. Stevens on board service and on board governance. In addition to the Asbury Board, Dr. Stevens served on the board of the Kenya Highlands Bible College GO International and the Christian Medical and Dental Association. He was the Founder and Board Chair of the National Embryo Donation Service and formed, trained, and chaired the first board of the Kanad Hospital in the United Arab Emirates. 

Let’s pick up the conversation where we left off last week. 

[00:01:39] Tommy Thomas: I want to change over to board service here. I’m looking at the material that you’ve sent me, and it looks like either you’re currently serving or have served on seven boards.  Tell me about your first board.  How did it show up? 

[00:01:52] David Stevens: The first place I really dealt with the board was here at CMDA. We had a great board when I got on as far as the people but had a board that was not functioning very well, and we had three-day board meetings. I had a couple of trustees, and I’d say this to them if they were here today, because they’d admit to it, that they spent half the time cracking jokes and banding back and forth during board meetings.

After they left, we actually had board meetings that were two days. Now they’re down to a day. But I realized they were good people, but they didn’t know how a board should work.  As I got involved in that, just started digging into it, as I do with things, I’m involved with how boards run. And it’s very difficult for a new CEO to come in and say to a board, I don’t think you know your job very well, but I worked with the Chair of the Board, and we got Bob Andringa to come in and train the board. Things improved a little bit, but they weren’t moving forward. So, I actually did the rough draft of the board policy manual and brought that to them, and they worked on that and we got that approved and then the institute of board training.

And so that’s how I got interested in this topic. 

The Board is the foundation of an organization. It’s like the foundation of a house. You cannot build a solid structure unless you have a solid foundation, and the board has to know its role.

That’s where I got my passion to help boards.

[00:03:17] David Stevens: And I’ve trained a lot of boards that need to take it to the next level. In fact, I’ve got a couple of trainings coming up in the next few months because it is just critical because things ultimately end up in problems if you don’t deal with that foundational principle. So that’s how I got interested in it and became a real student of it and a proponent of it to other organizations.

[00:03:44] Tommy Thomas: I want to go to the policy manual piece.   When I interviewed the Chairman of the Board of InterVarsity and Alec Hill, their past president, they talked about what a great difference the policy manual had made to governance at InterVarsity. Maybe take us into that a little. It’s so important that you have on paper and make the decisions of how you’re gonna run and how you’re gonna relate with your CEO.

[00:04:05] David Stevens: It’s not just how I feel about this board meeting, but what are the processes in place? And, the board’s job is to build fences around the CEO.  And here are the resources you can have that’s called the budget and staffing which comes out of the budget. And here’s where we’re going.

We have a strategic plan. We’ve all agreed this is where we’re heading. And then here’s not what you can do and here’s what you cannot do. 

Often boards are like Mother May I.  You come and ask us, and then we’ll tell you whether you can do it.  A good board says, “Here are the things you can’t do”.

Here are the resources. Here’s where we’ve decided to go, and then now to get the job done. And that frees up your CEO to be innovative. In fact, I remember when we were developing so quickly, I went to the board and said, I need a development fund and a budget line. By that I meant this, if some opportunity comes along and I need to get at it quickly, I need some funds available so that I can make a decision to move forward.

Then I’ll bring it to you for approval. Even the point of having an executive committee meeting or whatever, but I want the ability to respond quickly when an opportunity arises. And at that time, we had three board meetings a year and things were changing very rapidly. So those types of processes.

And then how does the board govern itself? What is the expectation for the trustees? What can they do? What can’t they do? And how are they evaluated? That’s something many boards don’t do to evaluate their trustees on a periodic basis. And so, you go through all these questions and put together a board policy manual.

[00:05:43] David Stevens: Ours was probably 25-30 pages long.  There were a number of appendices with other policies. But the more complex your organization is, the more critical it is to have that kind of structure in place. 

The Board Policy Manual is a dynamic document, and it can be changed at any time. And it should be changed as it is added to and subtracted as you learn and as you move forward.

But it’s very important because your meetings run so much better and so many good things are happening in a short amount of time.

[00:06:17] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to strategic planning for a minute. From your perspective, what’s the board’s role in strategic planning? 

[00:06:24] David Stevens: The way we approach that is that we came at it from the macro level coming down, you’re taking another look at the mission. We’re taking our vision statement, we’re looking at our key result areas and then maybe even get down a little bit lower than that, depending on how far they get to want to go below that.

But then you get into your measurable objectives and all that comes back into the staff. So we’ve got a goal.  Maybe it’s a goal that we’ve put together. Maybe it’s a goal that the board put together or maybe we’ve done it together, but in this key result area.  Here’s a major goal. And then here are measurable objectives and they’re timed and who’s gonna handle them and what departments are responsible and how they’re gonna be evaluated.

And they’re there’s a qualitative and a quantitative attached to them. And then you come back and keep track of that. And so we had a strategic planning committee of the board and every board member. At every board meeting, I took in one of those key resolved areas. We get through all of them. We grew and had so many things going on. We would go into one of those key result areas of the five key result areas and do a deep dive into the strategic planning committee.  I would also bring any new things that need to be added, and anything that needed to be changed. We set that objective too low. We set it too high.

We tried it, it didn’t work. Let’s delete it. It’s a dynamic document. It’s not something you do instead on the shelf, and we’ll look at this in three years or five years. It’s something that you’re looking at in-depth three times a year. I’m looking at it with the people that are involved in it and then bringing that to the board and here’s how we’re coming.

[00:07:56] David Stevens: A CEO who’s willing to be measured and objectively evaluated. It made the board’s job easy, knowing whether I was getting the job done or not, and also got them involved in what was going on and aware of what was happening. CMDA has grown to where there are over 50 different ministries and we’re working on 320 campuses across the country.

We’ve got multiple mission outreaches; we’ve got public policy. We have so much more than they had when I started.  Keeping track of that is very important unless you, and difficult to do, unless you have something planned out and it changes it three times a year. We say, hey, let’s go a different direction or let’s do this differently.  And made it very dynamic and it was a great measuring stick. 

[00:08:47] Tommy Thomas: When you think of the most effective board chair you’ve ever served under or watched, give me some words and phrases that describe him or her.

[00:08:55] David Stevens: Involved, supportive, knew their role.  I’ve been in seen situations where the board chair essentially tells the CEO what they can do and what they can’t do.

[00:09:06] David Stevens: The chair speaks for the board – interprets policy. If something comes up and it’s not clear how it applies in this situation, they can interpret it. But they have no personal authority over the CEO and that is 

very critical that the board acts as a whole, not as an individual.

It’s someone that would contact me on the phone, Dave, how are you doing? How are you holding up? What’s happening? How can I pray for you?   Let me go and visit that person that you want to make a major donor visit with. I know them. Let me take you there.

Those types of things involved speaking, coming when they’re in town, coming in, encouraging staff, and expressing appreciation from the board.

All those types of things make a huge difference. I had probably busier board chairs than many organizations have because all my Board Chairs were practicing physicians and extremely busy. And frankly, some of them were more involved than others. And it worked fine because I’ve been here longer than all of them put together, but our board chairs only lasted for two years.

Many organizations have chairs that are there for a long period of time. We had a board chair-elect for one year, two years as board chair, and one year as immediate past, we call them presidents and medical organizations. So that was very confusing when people would call me President, but the President really was the Chair of the Board.

And so I learned to adapt to that. But the best ones were the ones that stayed involved. And were especially an encouragement and a confidant with me as the CEO. Let’s go to term limits. I see that so frequently in my work.

[00:10:44] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to term limits.  I see so frequently in my work – the impact of term limits or not having term limits that can have on an organization.  I’d like to get your thoughts on that.

[00:10:50] David Stevens: I believe in term limits, and we have them for four-year terms. And then you can be renewed once, so a total of eight years, then you have to be off at least for one year before coming back on. And some have come back on. In fact, we’ve had chairs of the boards in our organization elected by our membership, which is different than most.

A couple of candidates have been board members and they’re elected by the constituency. We just made sure, the board did that, they put up candidates. Either one could be the chair, no matter which one they pick. So a little different in a medical organization than in a lot of organizations.

But I think term limits are important. It enables you to deal with trustees that are not performing well. I’ve been on boards where there’s a formal evaluation at the end of your term and decisions made on whether you’ll continue. I remember serving as chair of the governance committee and we didn’t do that with one person.

They couldn’t keep the confidence that we had. I’d talk to them and the chair talked to them and they still, it was a difficult situation.  The other thing that helps with dealing with that is using a grid for selecting your board. Here are the skills we need on the board, and here are the people we have, and each of them are rated according by themselves of what level of skills they have in fundraising or if it’s at an educational institution, education, or you name it.

[00:12:14] David Stevens: And you may have 10 or 15 different things you want on the board. It makes it easy to say, our needs have changed. We need to add someone with certain skills, and we have too much of people with this skill, but not enough fees. And that helps you when you’re dealing with term limits and not renewing them to do that without offending people.

But it’s important to have the right skills. I remember I went on one board, and they had three judges on the board. Did you know judges aren’t allowed to give legal opinions on boards? Because it’s a conflict. Yeah, it’s a conflict, something from a case might come up in front of them that had something to do with that.

And now they’ve given an opinion in a public record. It was obvious. We didn’t need three judges. They had three doctors. This wasn’t a medical organization. They really didn’t need three doctors, but they didn’t have somebody with a finance background or whatever. And so having a grid, and then you can look at this and say, okay, we’re looking for new board members.

Here are the things we’re rating low in. They have a low number. Here are the ones we’re doing well in. Now here’s the type of board member that we need. And then, all the other things that go in and make one of those selections. But it gives you direction and helps you with some board problems.

Having an active governance committee and a governance chair of that governance committee that can continually help your board to improve. We had board training at every board meeting. Every new member that came on the board received a packet of materials they needed to read before they came. Then the chair of the board and I trained them before the board meeting started.

When they came through that first board meeting, we appointed a mentor for them. It was usually the chair of the committee that we were going to serve, have them serve on, and we made sure their expertise was going to be used.

We had a welcoming process.  We had them give their testimony and share that so people could get to know them better or use them as a speaker or something like that so they could become acquainted.

[00:14:03] David Stevens: Made sure to call upon them and ask for their opinions. Oftentimes, board members sit back for their first, two, or three years and just listen.  We don’t want that. We brought you here with your expertise. We’re gonna draw you out every year. Here’s a page. Are you still committed? Do you still have the time?

And all those types of things that everybody signs. And then the formal evaluation at the end of four years. And then ways to show appreciation for all the hard work they’re doing and then have fun together. That was one of the reasons people love coming to our board meetings at CMDA. We had a spousal program for all the spouses when they came and fun things for them to do.

We had meals together. We looked for opportunities to go out. Do something fun together. If we had time, one of the most meaningful things is we would come in and the first night we were there, we’d have a nice dinner, maybe go out to eat if we were somewhere else in the country. And then we would have a prayer and share time, not about the organization, but about them as individuals.

And we’d sit in a circle with board members and their spouses if they were able to come. And it was a time of drawing closer together, being involved in each other’s life, praying for kids that had gone off the deep end or health issues or work situations. And it was all done in extreme confidence.

And people loved coming to the board meetings.   That was the thing they valued the most when we looked at it, especially for physicians, because oftentimes you can’t even share things with people at your church, even your pastor in the community where you are. I had a bad case, I had something go wrong.

I’m being sued, you name it. And it was a very powerful time for us and a lot of loyalty to the organization from our trustees because of what they got out of those times together.

[00:16:05] Tommy Thomas: I’d like for you to respond to this quote.  “You need a director on the board who will be a pleasant irritant. Someone who will force people to think a little differently. That’s what a good board does.”

[00:16:09] David Stevens:. I agree. And I can give you instances.  We were looking at something and we had one board member, a young guy, just not long on the board.

He says, I just don’t have peace about this. And we said, “share your concern”.   We’d had a vote and are getting ready to vote and he was the only one. Obviously, it was going to be opposed. 

And a wise chair said, “Let’s just each of us commit to pray about this tonight, and let’s come back tomorrow”.  We came back tomorrow and the whole thing had changed. The whole thing had changed.

A pleasant irritant I think is a great term.  He just had an insight that we had not thought about, and as we begin considering it, it was just, wow. Yeah, that would’ve been a bad decision. Yeah, the pleasant part is important.

I’ve had a couple of board experiences with just irritants, but not pleasant. In fact, I remember, and I have to say this to his face, one of the board members of my early days, he was a contrarian.  When we voted to move, he voted not to move. He told me later, he says, oh, I thought the move was a great idea, but I just thought somebody should vote against it.

He would cause long discussions and waste time and all that kind of stuff. That’s the other thing about a board – You need to have a timed agenda and keep things moving and not get bogged down, and give people an opportunity to speak, but at the same time, keep it moving along or board meetings can drag on and get very little accomplished.

And that’s something we instituted, and it made a huge difference. The board, when I left, came in on Friday afternoon, met until Saturday noon, and we’re talking about a big organization, lots of things to deal with, but they handled it in a very effective manner. 

[00:17:54] Tommy Thomas: I interviewed a guy one time that had worked real closely with Dr. Ted Engstrom at World Vision.  He said that Ted would often go into a Board Meeting with the minutes already written in his mind.  He would have the agenda and what he wanted to do.  Ted was known for his effective board meetings, and I guess maybe that’s how he got that done.

[00:18:14] David Stevens:   I had that role at CMDA because you got busy physicians coming in and, knowing where you’re hoping to take it and then being subservient. I remember when I first started, we had so many changes. This big move going on, new programs, getting into public policy, something they had never done.

A week after I came on, I had brought the communications director from Samaritan’s Purse who was in a prayer group with me. And I remember when I told him I was coming to CMDA, he said, David, remember me when you’re coming into your kingdom. And I actually hired him before I started.

He got to Dallas before I did by a day or two. And he had some background in public policy.  We had ethics statements that the ethics committee had put together on board improvement. They just stayed on the shelf and he came in and said, look, this just happened in the paper.

[00:19:03] David Stevens: Why don’t we set down a news release? I said I’ve never sent out a news release. He says I have. And I said, okay. And we were having financial problems. He said, how much is it gonna cost? 500 bucks? And we sit there discussing where we could afford the $500 and I said, send it out. And the next day the Associated Press showed up at the door and we were in the LA Times, the New York Post, you name it, all over the country.

And they came in with a photographer, the whole bit. And I went to my first board meeting and told them what I had done. And they said, we had talked about that before, but we thought we’d upset members and they would quit. There are some people that don’t agree with our statements on some of these issues.

I said, look at me. I said it just like that. 

Either you stand for something, or you stand for nothing. And for every member we lose because they don’t agree with one of our ethical statements, we’ll gain three. And that’s what happened.

And there was this great desire for our members to say we need a voice in what’s going on in this country.

[00:19:56] David Stevens: Physician-assisted suicide was just happening. And then there was the embryonic stem cell research course, the abortion issue, you name it.  It’s one of the reasons we need this new building. I’m sitting in a studio right now, the television studio next door because we had such an impact on news, not only in this country but literally around the world, speaking out on these issues.

And those types of things make a difference and really gravitated a lot of people into membership and being part of the organization and supporting it. 

[00:20:30] Tommy Thomas:  Dr. Sandra Gray said when I interviewed her, she said that she didn’t think that boards paid enough attention to risk management. What’s your perspective on the board’s involvement in risk management?

[00:20:37] David Stevens: That’s an interesting question.  Something that comes along with that is failing. 

And I told my staff again and again that I expected them to fail. I said, if you’re not failing some, you’re not skating close enough to the edge, you’re not taking enough risk.

The best way to find out whether something’s gonna work is not to sit here and talk it to death meeting after meeting. We’re not gonna bet the farm on it, but let’s go try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.

That’s how I encourage them to take risks and try something new.

[00:21:11] David Stevens: And that’s my personality as well. My wife laughs and says, David, all somebody has to do is to tell you something’s impossible and you want to go try to do it. And there’s some truth in that. At the same time, I’m not reckless.  I’m not betting the whole organization on it, but the way you grow is by taking risk.

So, the board needs to be aware. They need to understand what you’re doing. You need to get their input on what you’re doing and be willing to be subservient.   The point I was making before I got off on all the public policy stuff was that after I started moving so many different things, I remember a word going back to me that some of the board members said something in the derogative part.

We tried to create, and they named a leader that he didn’t have a lot of respect for in the Christian world. And, he’s gonna be too big and too much because they had never had a CEO like me.   The previous ones had all been seminary trained. I was the first physician in that role. And at the next board meeting, I just said very frankly, I said, you guys are in charge.

I am subservient to you. You tell me not to do something, I won’t do it. If you tell me to do something, I’ll do it. But my job is to move this organization forward and we’re gonna have a different type of organization than you’re used to because of that. And so, I made sure they knew the risk situations that we were dealing with, but I didn’t hesitate to tell them, yes, we’re going to do some things.

And that one situation I gave you, I did one of them, and then I got permission afterward with the public policy. 

[00:22:43] Tommy Thomas: Let’s close out with a bit of a counseling session.
Say you get a call next week from somebody who’s been asked to be on a nonprofit board. They’ve never served on a nonprofit board before.  What kind of counsel are you giving them, or what kind of questions are you telling them they need to be sure that they have answered?

[00:22:56] David Stevens:   I’d ask them first if they really believe in the mission of the organization that they’re a part of. Secondly, I’d ask them, what kind of briefing materials have they given you?

  • Do they have a board policy manual? 
  • Do they have a strategic plan? Have you seen what this is? 
  • Have you counted the cost?   
  • Do you know how much time is going to be required? 
  • Do you understand that you’ll need to be financially supporting this organization at a significant level based on your means? 
  • Are you willing to make a difference and get into this for the long term?

Make sure you’re not going into this for the wrong reason. It’ll be great fellowship. I know these people, or it’ll look good on my resume that I serve on this board. This is a serious matter that you’re getting into and it’s a high level of responsibility. And it’s the God-ordained group that’s really the foundation of this organization.

Your commitment needs to be there, and you need to be all in when you get in. And then if they didn’t have a background, as you said, in a board, I would ask, are they giving you orientation materials and information on what it means to be a board member?   What the expectations are, what good board members do, and all that type of thing.

[00:24:04] David Stevens: And if they didn’t have them, I would say, let me share some things with you because I got all that stuff. Here are the roles of the boards, the 8-10 things that they’re responsible for, including praying faithfully for this board and volunteering and helping and giving and all the other things as well as the specific governance activities.

I interviewed all the board members when I was chair of the governance committee at Asbury for seventeen years. And those are the type of things I ask because sometimes people get into situations for all reasons, and I don’t want them to be disappointed.

And I don’t want us to be disappointed without laying this out. And you may not know how to do this, but we’re going to teach you and you’ll have ongoing training, not just in governance, but things you need to know because you’re always needing to learn more as you serve as a trustee. These are new situations you’re facing.

New things that you need to become aware of and understand so you can make good decisions. And so, a good board is always training themselves up to the next level as well as continuing to remind themselves of good governance principles. 


I hope you’ve enjoyed these two conversations with David Stevens. As is often the case, we barely scratched the surface of the areas we have planned to discuss. I imagine that David will make another appearance in the coming year. 

Our guest next week will be Christin McClave.  I wanted Christin as a guest, but because of the breadth of experience she has with manufacturing, e-commerce industries, and the healthcare sectors. 

She has worked internally at both publicly traded and privately held companies and was a shareholder and a third-generation family business. I believe that people who have led successfully in the private sector have a lot to offer a nonprofit leader. Christin is no exception. 

I had just asked her to imagine that she was on a nonprofit version of Shark Tank.   What questions would she need answers to before opening her checkbook? 

[00:26:10] Christin McClave: I think first of all I would really want to understand the leader’s background. The team, the person, on Shark Tank, they usually have one other person standing with them. And the Sharks are very interested in where they came from, what their experiences are, how the two or the three of them got together, and the real dynamic of them working together, and what skills maybe one brings to the table, the other one fills in the gaps. I’d like to really understand that.

“Words that describe an effective Board Chair – Involved, Supportive, Knew their role.”-David Stevens

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