A Conversation with Hospice Board Chair Erik Barner

By J. Patrick Traynor

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might know that one of the things we offer charities is the opportunity to host a half-day High Impact Boards retreat. At these retreats, the organization’s board and CEO have the opportunity to learn the entire IMPACT boards system, gauge the current status of their board with our custom survey tool, and begin their journey to high impact as they rethink their role as nonprofit board members.

One local organization that completed a High Impact Boards retreat in summer 2023 was Hospice of the Red River Valley, which provides intensive comfort care for people with life-limiting, serious illnesses who have chosen to stop or forego curative treatments.

While Hospice of the Red River Valley has been doing essential, life-giving work in the region for more than 40 years, Board Chair Erik Barner credits the organization’s High Impact Boards retreat experience as a turning point in how they think about Hospice’s board and how to leverage it for maximum impact going forward.

We recently sat down with him to talk about the board’s retreat experience and what they’ve implemented from the IMPACT framework over the past year.

Meet Erik Barner

An investment manager by trade, Erik Barner chairs the board of an organization that helped his own family more than a decade ago. “Hospice of the Red River Valley was a guiding light during a really delicate, special period of time … for that, I’ll forever be grateful,” he says. A first-time board chair, Barner says the High Impact Boards framework has helped him rethink his own role and has brought additional clarity and focus to the organization’s strategic priorities.

What are some of the things the High Impact Boards retreat made you rethink, both in terms of board service generally and serving as a board chair specifically?

Erik Barner: “I felt like we, as a board, had never taken the time to just focus on what was working and things that we could improve on. The High Impact Boards retreat was really helpful for us to reflect on what we wanted our board to look like and how we wanted to operate. And the retreat gave us the time and space to be able to do that. It has both allowed us to make needed changes and has allowed us to operate much more effectively and successfully.

“Logistically, we’ve reduced the number of times we meet from monthly to quarterly. We’ve expanded the length of the meetings accordingly and tried to focus on more strategic areas based on the framework and the feedback that we received through the (High Impact Boards) retreat. The cadence in which board materials go out has become much tighter and the actual materials themselves have as well.

“Our meetings were very jam-packed and left little room for discussion, and we’ve moved to a much more discussion-based board format. It’s been incredibly helpful from every facet, but it was not something that was natural for our board, given how the meetings had been run to that point. The retreat was very fundamental in helping us make that change, along with input from leadership and the full board.”

Did Hospice use any kind of dashboard before attending the High Impact Boards retreat?

Erik Barner: “We did but previously our dashboard was very internally, operationally focused. And it functioned well for that team and for board members with expertise in those areas.

“But getting a (new) dashboard in place that’s more comprehensive and qualitative for all board members — to be able to understand the organization more broadly — has really helped in terms of facilitating dialogue amongst our board. It’s been enormously helpful and has helped give everyone a helpful framework to see the overall health of the organization at a glance.”

Talk about the board chair-CEO relationship. What are some ways that you support and sync with your CEO on an ongoing basis?

Erik Barner: “My cadence with (Executive Director Tracee Capron) is that we meet regularly to discuss both upcoming board meetings, as well as all kinds of operational and strategic items that we have — most specifically Heather’s House (see below) and the construction and fundraising that’s going on with that.

“I try to serve as a sounding board for her, whether it’s an internal issue, external issue, or a new idea that she has. And we have complementary backgrounds, so I try to bring some of my more private sector business experience to any sort of idea that she wants to operationalize internally at Hospice.”

A rendering of Heather’s House, an 18-bed, first-of-its-kind “hospital in disguise” where family and loved ones can spend their final time together in comfort, rather than in a traditional hospital. The project was first conceived by the Hospice of the Red River Valley team 25 years ago and plans to open within the next year. The first and only free-standing Hospice House in North Dakota, it will serve more than 1,000 individuals per year.

“Our hope is that (Heather’s House) will be the first of several throughout the state,” says Hospice of the Red River Valley Board Chair Erik Barner, “and will ultimately serve every individual (in the region) who needs Hospice care.”

A fundamental tenet of the High Impact Boards framework is that, in order for a board to function at its highest level, courageous communication is essential. How do you help facilitate that as the board leader?

Erik Barner: “I think we have a high-functioning board, but I think the High Impact Boards retreat allowed us to take our communication to another level.

“I try to ensure that everybody has a place to give their perspective and feedback. And if there are differing positions, I try to ensure not just civility but that both sides are heard. We try to come to a conclusion where everybody both feels that their point is understood but also that we get to a decision point to move forward.

“With a board meeting, how we address strategic questions is typically a planned discussion item, whatever it may be. We end the meeting by running the table to ensure that quieter board members either speak up or that people who have less expertise with that strategic item are given a platform to provide their feedback on the meeting or the idea, specifically.

“I try to prompt people. If someone hasn’t given their perspective, I encourage them to give their opinion.”

We talk a lot about how most boards spend about 80 percent of their time on administrative matters and only about 20 percent of their time on the bigger things that truly move the needle. How have you guys been able to flip that on the Hospice board?

Erik Barner: “When I think of our areas of focus prior to the retreat, we were predominantly focused on administrative items. And I think our agendas reflected that. They were very information-dense and less discussion based.

“The retreat really allowed us to flip that and gave us the platform to share ideas amongst one another about what an ideal board meeting would look like. And while we still have work to do, I think we’ve done a great job of moving toward more strategic items  — while still ensuring the details are being taken care of.”

Almost all successful boards employ some kind of master organizational checklist. Can you talk about Hospice’s checklist and the role it plays in your board management?

Erik Barner: “Ours is much more comprehensive now and easier to consume. Even just the annual calendar is in a better place, but I kind of think of them the same way.

“On our master organizational checklist, we have a checklist of all things ranging from immense importance to minor importance that need to be taken care of in and amongst the year. And included in that is everything related to the board in terms of who they are, contact information, when they started, when their tenure is up. It also includes an annual calendar in terms of what literally needs to be done every month.

“The importance of a holistic organizational checklist I cannot overstate, and it’s been of fundamental importance for us at Hospice of the Red River Valley.”

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