Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The problem of board "do-ers"

Does your nonprofit board have too many "do-ers?"

The "do-ers" are totally dedicated to your vision of the future and your mission for accomplishing it. They're enthusiastic. They may have helped you found your organization, which means their devotion to the work feels endless. When there is something to be done, you can always count on them. They're "do-ers," after all. You may have recruited these individuals because they have a track record as star volunteers - for you or another organization - or because they are active community leaders with a reputation for "getting things done."

In many respects, these individuals are dream board members. Whatever they commit to do will be done - and probably done well. But "doing" is not necessarily "governing." When our board worker bees  fail to understand that there is a critical difference, the organization suffers.

In some respects, a board "do-er" is a pleasant problem to have when compared with the alternatives  (e.g., a member for whom board service is a line on a resume or one who crams your meetings in to an already tight schedule and can barely remember what you're discussing). But that active tendency, and the need to feel like they're accomplishing something, can lead to obsessing over details, filling meetings with reports and "action items," and lamenting the lack of time available to focus on the fluffy stuff of mission and strategy.

I debated rewriting or deleting that last sentence, but the truth behind it will ring familiar with many readers and their boards. The more I work and serve with these dedicated volunteers, the more I realize that the real issue is a lack of clarity about the dual roles they are serving, and about which role must take precedence in the boardroom.

Earlier this year, in a "Movie Monday" video interview, Jane Kuechle articulated the problem as confusion about the fact that many board members are trying to wear two "hats" simultaneously: a "governance" hat and a "volunteer" hat.  Just as a bike helmet and a bridal veil require two very different kinds of wardrobes, the roles of governor and volunteer require very different points of focus and activity.

The challenge for small nonprofits is that board members in these settings also often are lead volunteers. Their volunteer leadership is as valued and essential as their board service. But no board can afford to lose the equally important governance responsibilities, even with the annual fundraising dinner (and all of its urgent tasks) just around the corner. We've all heard of the tyranny of the urgent - focusing with such laser-like precision on the tasks right in front of us that we lack the energy to concentrate on the far more important questions and work. That phenomenon is all too real in too many boardrooms, where the "important" is the work.

Encouraging our ultra-active board members to stop and clarify which organizational "hat" they are wearing is at least half of the challenge. Actually, for many, simple awareness that they are letting their volunteerism drive their board meeting focus may be all that is necessary. Beyond that, structuring board meetings for governance work will go a long way toward focusing their attention where it needs to be. I've offered several ways to restructure meetings for governance focus in an earlier post. Click here to read that entry.

The challenge in this situation is acknowledging the do-ers' dedication to the organization and its mission, in all of its expressed forms, while encouraging - expecting - focus on the different level of leadership that governance requires. That may require explicitly setting boundaries and redirecting conversation when the talk drifts.

It happens. I've certainly been on the other side. During my first two board assignments, I also volunteered as a victim advocate for the organizations. My commitment to the work and the front-line perspective I provided were helpful. The occasional detours as I rambled on about volunteer challenges were not. I can recall six consecutive years on another board where logistics for the annual crab dinner took over the agenda for months at a time. I also scooped cole slaw, flung crab legs, poured coffee and washed dishes at that event. I get it. But I also see the impact of distracted boards who lack attention to the governance responsibilities that must take precedence.

How does your board balance the the desire to "do" with the essential but not urgent governance that is its ultimate reason for being? How do you accomplish that without squashing the enthusiasm of board members who serve your organization in other ways?


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Hi, Debra -

Thanks, as always, for this post. You make a really important distinction between governing and volunteering, which many board boards (and board members) simply don't get a chance to think much about. My experience is that there is little or no distinction for the all-volunteer or near-all-volunteer organization precisely because they are required to do both simultaneously. Unfortunately, wearing the governing hat is eclipsed by all the urgent "to do" stuff.

The distinction can become clearer when staff is available to take over some or all of the volunteering responsibilities, thus freeing board members to wear their governing hats more often.

Inevitably problems arise when the hats aren't worn at the proper times and there's a lack of collective discipline regarding hat use.

It's such a simple concept, really, but it's one that must be learned and internalized.

Nancy Iannone said...

Many of the orgs I have had experience with still actively recruit "do-ers" for boards that have moved in to a stronger governance role. This can cause a great deal of frustration for the board member, board and staff.

As you pointed out, "getting things done" has a very different focus when the role is governance. Does the stage of board development then change the type of person needed? How can a task driven "do-er" best be mentored in governing?

Good food for thought!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Thanks, Anne and Nancy, for your feedback on this. Many issues are at play here, which you've both highlighted well

There is a distinct "education" issue for everyone. Part of that goes back to the old problem of no one understands what governance *really* involves. That includes lack of understanding on the staff's part, too. A recurring theme that I've seen is staff resentment over the board "not doing enough" or "not doing their jobs," which often means "they aren't selling the raffle tickets we've given them" and various failures for *volunteer* tasks. (Boards and EDs express that, too.)

I'll take a group of enthusiastic, sparkly-eyed do-ers any day, vs. the glassy-eyed and checked-out. But that necessary encouragement to step back and assume the governance mantle can be surprising in its challenge. And, definitely, when we're perpetually slapped in the face by those urgent tasks, it's hard not to focus on them.

Nancy, you raise a good question about the personnel need shift as the board shifts. You know, I'm one (though far from alone) who's always advised boards not to completely ignore recruits from within. They're already committed, and you have opportunities to evaluate work style in ways not possible with people coming from the outside (and, I would say, that's not bad advice).

But I do think that, at minimum, all board members need ongoing clarity about what governance really involves and about how it differs from other types of volunteerism. It may actually be a bigger(?) challenge for some of those really committed volunteers to switch out those hats. I'd like to think that this type of person can be mentored to facilitate that process. Will that mentoring take place? Maybe that's the question.

Grateful for your wisdom, as always!

Alexandra Lally Peters said...

One of the big issues here is clarifying for whom the board is working. The board of governors/directors has a very clear directive - governance. That means that it's their responsibility as a group to decide the big issues - and they are BIG issues - for the organization, like why do we need to exist, are we doing what we say we do, etc. And to make the BIG decisions like who do we hire to run this organization, and are they doing a good job? And to be asking questions all the time, like do we have the money to do this, should we consider merging, do we really need a new building, and so on. These are all group discussions and decisions. And the board is answerable to itself and to the community in making these decisions.

But all those volunteer things - that's almost invariably board acting as individuals, reporting to the Executive Director, not to the board. And even in an all volunteer organization, where there is no staff to report to, the board functioning as staff are not functioning as board when they are - well, functioning as staff.

You raise SUCH an important issue, Debra, because there is so little understanding of what boards do on the part of both boards and staff. I think you can be a do-er and wear two different hats (maybe literally? Now, what kind of hat would that be?) But what the board is supposed to be doing in governing is still so confusing for everyone.

I think it's critical for every board to have discussions about what governance is and how it works within the context of that board. These can be wonderful high flying discussions, and everyone stands to gain from them. It's so much easier to understand what boards do and to whom they are accountable when boards themselves talk about it. (And by the way, these are NOT staff led discussions...)

Thanks for your ever interesting blog posts!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I've had some pretty tricky conversations with boards, both those I was advising and those of which I was a member, Alexandra. "Tricky" can be an understatement.

The most vivid example arose during a retreat I was facilitating, when I tried (and more or less failed) to convey that a board member capturing and releasing squirrels that had fallen down a chimney was engaging in that activity as a *volunteer,* not a board member.

The disconnect comes from a good place: these individuals care so deeply about the organization that their leadership role naturally translates into "whatever the agency needs me to do." I get that, and value that. But it doesn't make successfully conveying that the definition of governance doesn't extend quite that far any easier. In some respects, it's a harder message for ultra-committed volunteers to absorb. The head may get it, but the heart resists.

I served on one board, governing an organization in its infancy, that was an interesting (and frustrating) case study related to this issue. As is the case with many start-up nonprofits, the board functioned not only as the governing body but the volunteer force and the staff as well. Because it supervised programs with federal grants, that staff "hat" took a disproportionate amount of board time and energy. It was necessary - the work had to be done by someone - but it was intellectually exhausting. And it was all we did. I signed on because the mission fit so perfectly to my skill set and interests. But giving up that 'doer' role when we were able to hire a part-time director was easier said than done for the board leadership. I respectfully declined a second term.

I've assigned the Movie Monday video as homework to a couple of boards recently, and it seemed to resonate at some level with those groups. The hat metaphor may have some potential.

Alice Korngold said...

Great post by Debra, and great comments/discussion by Anne, Nancy, and Alexandra. I agree with you all!

These are such real issues for small nonprofits with no or barely any staffing, for small nonprofits that are shifting to having more staffing, and even some of the larger nonprofits. For smaller nonprofits, the boards can be so stuck in doing that they can't look up and see forward and bigger. Boards of organizations that are growing often have difficulty shifting from doing to governing. And even boards of larger nonprofits can get stuck.

In such cases, the remedy can be, as you say, board education and a change to better board agendas and practices(which is often a great relief for all involved). But I think that in many cases, what's required is a change in board leadership and/or board composition. Perhaps the board needs people who are more visionary, creative, and strategic, rather than tactical in how they see things and problem-solve. Also an infusion of new people with fresh thinking and more diverse backgrounds and perspectives can make a world of difference.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

What I appreciate so much about this discussion - beyond the collective wisdom shared by some of my favorite governance minds - is the way that different layers are xpanding the premise of the post(and what's emerging is so exciting to read and ponder!).

Alice, you and Nancy both raise a recruitment question that ultimately must be addressed by our boards. It's also an issue related to the "do-er" dilemma. If a board is filled only with minds who focus on the here and now/nuts and bolts, of nonprofit work, true capacity for governance will never be reached. We need *leaders* who view the world through a wider lens, too.

Not that someone who excels in a hands-on approach doesn't have this capacity or can't be inspired to stretch in that direction. But boards do require members with not only the capacity but the willingness to assertively push the leadership team to maintain its focus on the horizon and beyond.

Boards need a healthy balance of *leaders* who keep them grounded in the issues of the day and the vision pushing them and their organizations forward. It is a legitimate recruitment need for any governing team.