The Boards of Directors of nonprofit organizations are a vital component of each and every entity which is a part of the nonprofit sector. A high functioning board is one where leaders clearly understand board roles and responsibilities, as well as areas of major accountability which are:
- Setting broad strategic vision and goals
- Overseeing and ensuring nonprofit’s overall financial viability, both short and long term
- Positive promotion of the organization in the community
- Effectively managing and delegating operational responsibility to the Executive Director
Almost everyone who joins a nonprofit Board of Directors does so with good intentions, and a desire to support a worthy cause. There is rarely ever a financial gain motivation, as nonprofit board members are not paid. In fact, in many organizations, board members are expected to make substantial contributions in the form of monetary donations, in addition to donation of time and service.
So, you’d think that nonprofit boards would not only survive but thrive in this perpetual atmosphere of goodness, light, good will and sunshine, right? Well…not exactly. In fact a lot of things can go wrong in this sort of environment, resulting in minor to severe organizational dysfunction, ineffectiveness in governance, stagnation, and even the eventual demise of the nonprofit. That last one is always a shame, as most charitable organizations are founded with worthy and important goals, and at least the potential to address pressing social service need, and fill critical gaps in communities.
Here are my top 3 picks for the common, but highly fixable errors made by a lot of nonprofit boards:
1) Failure To Strategically Assemble And Maintain A Diverse Group
The key to success with a Board of Directors often lies not in its ability to get along well, socialize outside the boardroom, and never experience conflict, but in understanding the value of a team which respects and even embraces differences in one another. The key here is diversity–not in the traditional sense of racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity, although that can play a role as well–but in diversity of background experiences, professional skill sets, personality, and ways of approaching problems.
Homogeneous groups tend to be less effective than diverse groups because they are prone to groupthink and lack of innovation. This is a common occurrence on nonprofit boards primarily due to the way in which these groups tend to source their members–through their own social connections. People are more comfortable being around others who think like they do and have the same response to problem solving, etc. Let’s remember that comfort is not the goal here–affecting positive change for the client group is.
2) Thinking Governance and Management Are One In The Same
Quite simply, they’re two different concepts. Lines are often blurred due to a fundamental lack of understanding of the governance role, as well as arguably subtle differences between the two. Hey, let’s face it, sometimes you can be governing right along there with the best of them, lose focus, and all of a sudden wake up managing. How the heck did you get there? Well, because it’s easy to do. Here are a few tips to keep boards on the governing side and steering clear of sliding over into management:
- Hire and effectively manage the overall performance of the Executive Director, don’t push them aside and do their job for them.
- Keep simultaneous focus on the short and long term. This is actually Leadership 101, and not as hard as it sounds. Set short and long term goals with long term vision in mind. Determine the purpose of your organization, realistically look at where you are now, develop a vision of where you’d like to be, and give broad marching orders on how to get there utilizing the resources you have in the here and now.
- Resist the urge to micromanage! If your staff and/or fellow board members are afraid to make the decisions and take the actions which fall within the range of those bullet points on their job description without running it by you first–every time–then you too might be a micromanager. Consult Control Freaks Anonymous for 12 Step Help.
- Remember that oversight is your primary responsibility. Delegation is not abdication. The buck stops with you. In addition to looking great on one of those cheesy motivational business posters, those last two sentences should be your guiding light for governance. Be present and accountable for what your nonprofit does and how it is viewed by external stakeholders.
3) Nursing A Fundamental Lack of Understanding That Change Is Inevitable, But Growth Is Optional
My friend, motivational speaker and author Mary Foley Tweeted that the other day, and it stirred my governance juices so that I felt compelled to Tweet back, “Amen Sister!” The nonprofit sector has the reputation of being slow to embrace change, clunky and inefficient, and idealistic-unrealistic. Mind you, I say this as a great lover and supporter of all things 501c3, but the nonprofit sector has come by that stereotype honestly….
Many nonprofit boards, while well meaning, do cling to the notion of doing things the way they’ve always been done. While it is important to know and understand the history of the organization (that’s the “where we’ve been and where we are now” part), it is also important to fully grasp the concept that while change is scary, it will be visited upon your nonprofit whether you like it or not. Organizations, as much as they’d like to, do not exist in a vacuum. There is an internal and external environment in which they must exist that is continually changing. Client groups change, client needs change, legal and regulatory climates change, best management practice changes…all aspects of the world in which your nonprofit operates change. And, as Mary so aptly stated in 140 characters or less, the positive growth of your nonprofit is optional…It is optional, and fully within your locus of control and responsibility as a nonprofit board member and leader.
Should boards then respond by tearing up the old ways and jumping on the bandwagon of whatever is new and trendy? Of course not. But, boards make a grave error when they tie their own hands, those hands responsible for shaping the present and future of the organization, because they are afraid to try new things, think outside the box, and take a calculated, educated risk now and then. If the fear that shaking things up a bit will cause your most important members to jump ship, then you really have to ask yourself if you have fallen into that common trap of pleasing one another rather than a spirit of servant leadership to your mission.
Please feel free to comment below on my top three governance errors, and add some of your own!