Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Nonprofit governance: Boards rising (or stooping) to our expectations

We don't even think about them until a month (or a week) before the annual meeting, where we vote on new board members.

We recruit them for the demographic box(es) we get to check off if they say yes, not the unique mix of knowledge, connections, commitment, and perspectives they offer.

We coerce them into running, often promising, "Don't worry. It doesn't take that much time..."

We're in such a rush to fill our ballot that we forget to tell them what they've signed up to do until after we elect them. If we know...

We orient them to those commitments and our organization in a single, two-hour session held at the end of an already long day.

We have no clue what draws them to our mission, because we've never thought to ask.

We have no idea how they'd like to share their expertise - or what knowledge or skills they'd like to develop during their service - because we've never posed the question.

We send the information critical to informed decision making a couple of days before the meeting, in a detail-laden packet hefty enough to bow any postal carrier's back. Or, worse, we plop it in front of them when they arrive for the meeting.

We fill meeting agendas with endless reports about activities that have already taken place, then squish the interesting topics into the final few minutes left for "new business."

We don't allow open space in meetings. Heaven only knows what they'd do with that unscripted time.

We don't trust them with the really good stuff. You know: the work that's actually stimulating, has an impact, and might give participants a brief moment in the spotlight.

Individual and group goals don't exist, because no one can be bothered to establish them. There literally is no bar set for them.

We offer no feedback until they mess up. We certainly don't let them know they're doing a good job.

When they do screw up, we bring in an expert (and the inevitable, 168-slide PowerPoint presentation) to "fix things for us."

We only rely on experts when training is needed and confine learning to those two- to four-hour blocks of already precious non-work hours.

They have no idea whether their work is meaningful, because we never give them time to stop and assess for themselves (and we certainly never affirm it for/with them).

And yet we're perpetually mystified when our boards "disappoint" us.

I'm not delusional enough to suggest that individuals never shirk responsibilities and groups always function perfectly and productively. However, I do know (because I've seen firsthand) that boards can do great things - and want to make a significant difference in the world - if they have the support they need for the leadership that is expected of them. They will rise to our expectations, as high - or as low - as we define them.

The next time we're tempted to point an accusing finger at a board failure, we need to first ask ourselves two questions:

  • Have we both set and communicated the appropriately high expectations we have of them?
  • Have we done all that we can do to support them in rising to those expectations?

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