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?