Monday, January 21, 2013

Nonprofit boards: The substitute’s dilemma

Do we treat our board members like substitute teachers?

Do we ask them to come in on a periodic basis, tend to the bottom line, not cause too much damage themselves, and then get out of the way until the next time we need them?

Every time I re-read Chait, Ryan and Taylor’s superb Governance as Leadership, I find something new or see something familiar in a new way. Recently, as I was perusing the pages searching for another reference, I ran across a description of what the authors call a “substitute’s dilemma” (p. 39).

They frame this in the context of the board’s traditional (and traditionally dominant) monitoring role. It fits our bottom-line responsibilities. It’s regular work - something we can put on the agenda every meeting - unlike many of the meatier questions and projects that find their way to boards. It’s an essential but limited and conception of governance, according to the authors. 

“It means focusing on norms of minimally acceptable behavior. In effect, trustees are tasked to prevent trouble rather than promote success.” (p. 38)

Oh, and this just in: it’s far from engaging work.

The monitoring role is an essential task of governance. Boards act as lead stewards for resources provided to the organization. The accountability buck stops on the boardroom table. But if that’s all that boards do - if preventing trouble is the only task on our agenda – we’re just like those substitute teachers. We trot in once a month (or so), keep the wheels from falling off the wagon, and move on until it’s time to repeat the cycle.

Expecting anything of impact, anything resembling leadership, to emerge from that setting is as likely as finally me grasping a tough geometry concept from a sub whose bottom line for the day was to keep a bunch of rowdy eighth graders from burning down the classroom (not impossible, but definitely challenging). Keep everyone alive, don’t make any messes, and you’ve earned your paycheck for the day.

I’ve spent far too many cumulative years, on too many boards, obsessing over financial statements. (Without guarantees: One of the more obsessive boards spent so much time on tiny little details that we missed the ED embezzling from the agency.)  What I miss more than anything is the impact those boards could have had, if we had kept our fiduciary responsibilities in context of the broader scope of governance.

I’m not sure I have the ultimate response to this phenomenon, at least nothing beyond advice found across this blog. But Chait, Ryan and Taylor’s “substitute teacher” analogy framed the dilemma in a way that made sense to me and, perhaps, to you and your boards.  If it resonates, ask yourself questions like these:

What are the expectations we have for substitute teachers? How does that represent, or contradict, the expectations we have for our board and individual members?

  • How much ownership does the substitute have for the ultimate outcomes that emerge from the classroom? 
  • How does that compare to the responsibility a teacher has for those outcomes and the processes that lead to them? 
  • How does that relate to the ownership our boards feel for the work presented to them?

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