What Happens to Squelch the Creativity and Leadership Skills of Smart, Productive People When They Get on a Nonprofit Board?
A vital board is one whose members show up ready to contribute to the success of the organization. It is one on which every board member feels that s/he is making a positive contribution and takes responsibility for financial oversight and mission accomplishment.
Ah, the ideal board! The obstacles to developing such a board and some techniques for achieving it were discussed at the November 19 Governance Matters Roundtable, How Can We Solve the Problems That Drive You Nuts About Nonprofit Boards?
The basic problem from which many others flow seems to be that corporate governance and nonprofit governance are very different. While specific problems vary from ineffectual board to ineffectual board, the underlying issue may be a mis-perception about the role of a board in the nonprofit sector.
While the board chair is clearly the leader, s/he may be too busy running the meetings to train or encourage other board members or and this is a big problem may not realize that it needs to be done not only by the chair, but by the board itself.
A sampling of problems:
- Some people join boards for the status.
- Some believe that their financial contribution is all that is wanted of them.
- Board members are often high-level, busy executives who join without realizing that membership is about individual involvement, not just rubber-stamping the work of staff.
- Some corporate executives might have little experience with peer decision-making; their job experience is hierarchal, that is, follow the leader.
- Board members do not realize their overall responsibility to and liability for the organization's financial well being.
- Organizations woo board members only to abandon them once they are on the board.
- Some board members have valuable skills but are not self-starters; they need coaching and support to develop into leaders.
- When a strong founder is on the board or still serving as executive director, the board may be expected to be ineffectual.
Creating a vital and effective board requires re-socialization; training in nonprofit governance and fiduciary responsibilities; and very clear communication of expectations from both the organization and from board members:
- Re-socialization around role expectations to overcome the idea of hierarchal leadership and inculcate the idea of shared leadership.
- Training in nonprofit governance and the ways in which it differs from corporate governance, such as the use of consensus-building.
- Fiduciary responsibilities, such as who gets sued if governance is mishandled and who does the district attorney call when financial records aren't correct? Fear, one person commented, is a great motivator.
- Expectations that the organization has of board members, such as attendance, reading the information given to them, and using their skills and contacts to benefit the organization.
- Expectations that the board member has, such as understandable financial reports sent out in advance of the board meetings, up-to-date information on issues and opportunities, and a meaningful role in moving the organization ahead.
Without this training, boards can become non-functional and board members can become bored, disengaged, and non-participating.
- When one board member has become deadwood, the solution may be for the board chair to make that person a "new best friend, taking them out to lunch, finding out what makes them tick and then figuring out where or if that board member can fit in," as one participant said.
- The very necessary "board orientation training" itself must be engaging don't just hand them a notebook -- and based on the experience that the board members have.
- In addition to training, board structure and recruitment must reflect and support the expectation that board members are working members of a community, a community of people concerned about and workingtogether toward the mission of the organization.
- Board members are volunteers. "Being needed is the ultimate aphrodisiac," one participant commented. "If they understand that they are needed, that forms a bond among this group of people."
- Emphasize that leadership is the responsibility of every board member, not just the officers and committee chairs. Contributions come in many forms and can be developed over time.
- Board members, the chair, and the executive director are a partnership.
- The Nominating Committee should become one part of the Governance Committee's role. Other aspects include orientation for new board members as well as yearly "one-on-one" interviews, and a retreat for the entire board to update members about new issues or opportunities, and to be sure that everyone has a role.
- Do not bring anyone on the board unless sh/e can assume a leadership role at some point in time. "Leadership role" is not confined to board chair; it may be, for example, leading a committee or a project.
- Do not bring people on to the board who do not know how to play well with others.
- Do not invite people to join the board if they are already on more than two other boards; there's a risk that they won't have time to make a meaningful contribution.
- Use and expand the skills of every board member. While not every member will become an expert in financial oversight, every member should become adept at reading financial reports and asking questions about them.
- Make sure board members understand what is going on in the organization's sector as well as in the organization itself. Give them context.
- If applicable, have board chairs meet with their peers from other organizations that exemplify good, shared leadership.
- Recruit board members with the enticement that they will learn senior management skills that their position in the corporate world may not offer strategic planning, financial oversight, etc. and that those skills will improve their resumes ... but only if they actively participate.
- If a board is stagnant, ineffectual, and disengaged, it may be necessary and financially wise to hire an outside consultant who can objectively assess where the problems lie.
Resources suggested by the attendees:
Board Leadership Project
Good Governance Guide
Whose Minding the Money? at BoardSource