What’s the Deal with Nonprofit Boards?

My plan for blog post #2 was to focus on the management “M” as it pertains to staff members, but something else rose to the top of the list. And it’s the topic of boards, which is everywhere. Everywhere. What is a board member’s job? Aren’t they supposed to raise money and be the good guy? Why don’t they seem to know that? But aren’t they also supposed to hold everybody accountable and be the bad guy? Why don’t they seem to know that either?

Having worked for a board and served on many of them, I can honestly say that board members are, by nature, set up for failure…or at least some major headaches. You take a group of well-intended volunteers, who, remember, join an organization because they have a passion for the mission, not board governance. You then bring them together at regular intervals to figure out how to govern an organization, when it’s the staff who know the ins and outs of the organization. Then you give these volunteers ultimate fiduciary responsibility, a term that eludes most of us.

It’s a recipe for organizational contempt, and for the board leads to such issues as groupthink, conflict avoidance, lack of focus, strife with their executive director and tedious meeting agendas.

No wonder far too many boards look around the room at the start of their regularly scheduled board meeting and wonder if they’ll make quorum.

By its nature, board governance comes with tension. Tension between caring about the mission and governing it correctly. Tension between not wanting to talk about numbers, yet having those pesky financials attached to every board packet. Tension between the executive director hired by the board to run the organization, and the board members themselves, who believe there might be a better way to do things.

How does one work through these tensions, creating a board that’s both functional and a pleasant experience for members as well as staff?

Two pieces make this puzzle: systems and selection.

Let’s start with systems. Get a model that clearly defines everyone’s responsibilities and accountabilities, the goals/strategies for the year, and how the board will monitor the organization over time. Get policies and procedures in place and update those bylaws to reflect the evolution of the organization.

I have watched extremely successful for-profit executives enter the nonprofit board meeting context and lose every ounce of business-minded logic they had. Why? Because they joined for the mission, not to be involved in messy business issues.

Yet, for the traditional governing board it’s simply not the board’s job to run the mission. It’s their job to make sure everything works correctly and toward the goals that they helped set. They must manage the organization’s liability and ensure the organization’s sustainability. They must know that people are being served the way intended, that the money is being spent with integrity.

So how do you get there? Look to your leader. Board presidents and chairs must understand that the organization needs to run with systems in place, and then have the ability to communicate directly when their fellow board members work outside of appropriate parameters. Conflict avoidance is as common on boards as it is for staff (as it is in life, no?).

Just because someone is volunteering their time to sit on a board does not mean they have free reign to do what they want, say what they want, have their own agenda and run rogue. It is for the board leadership to run their boards and meetings with integrity, excellent communication, and an understanding of the critical role a board plays for an organization.

If you are a staff or board member and your board does not function this way, it needs at minimum a training on board governance. Talk to your board chair. If you are a board chair and you  cannot lead your board with a focus on governance and policy, get some support for your role or consider resigning. This is too important.

And, notice I didn’t say any of this was the executive director’s role. I’ve seen EDs put in terrible positions, expected to manage their board issues, and it’s an unfair, no-win situation.

Okay, you’ve got your systems in place. Onto selection.

Except I can’t make my blogs too long or else you won’t come back…so I’m going to post “What’s the Deal with Nonprofit Boards? Part II: Selection” in about a week or so. It’s a good one…talks about getting the right fit on your board and keeping them there, and why the “anyone with a pulse” technique doesn’t cut it.

Want to talk more about boards? Post a comment or contact me at Deirdre@makemomentum.com.

Now…go do good, and do it well.

One thought on “What’s the Deal with Nonprofit Boards?

  1. reneeherrell says:

    You make a great point! Passion for the mission is great and the most popular entry point for a person to get involved with a nonprofit. BUT a nonprofit is a business and needs to be operated like a business.

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