Monday, January 13, 2014

The board as nonprofit leadership constant

We all know that individual members come and go - sometimes too frequently. But I've recently been thinking about the board in a different way.  What if, instead of viewing nonprofit boards as ephemeral bodies filled with transient members, we saw the board itself as a community-focused leadership constant?

Regardless of who's actually sitting around the table at any time, the board has the ultimate legal and moral/ethical role: defining, protecting and advancing the vision and mission of the nonprofit. They aren't alone in advancing it, of course. But the buck stops with the board. It holds ultimate accountability to the community and other stakeholders for the use of resources, financial and otherwise. The board, and its individual members, are (or should be) the common denominator and constant leadership presence in the community over time.

I'm still working with this idea, but it's raising some questions with broader implications for how we enact governance.

"The board is the nonprofit's leadership constant." If we acted as if this were true:

  • How would our public definitions and conceptions of nonprofit governance and boards change?
  • How would we talk about boards and their ultimate responsibilities as a result?
  • How do we talk about, and work with, the board within our organizations (Hint: no more whining about the burdens they place on us.)?
  • How would we approach future board recruitment?
  • How would the board talk about itself and its work?
  • How would the board approach its accountability responsibilities?
  • How would it shape board development and how our boards envision the role of learning to support its work?
  • How would our communities talk about boards and board service?
  • How would that impact/influence perceptions of board service as community leadership?
  • How would our communities be better because of our boards' constant source of leadership?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have questions - and no clear answers - when it comes to this topic. But it feels like an important part of the evolving conversation about the full potential of nonprofit governance and the impact that our boards can have as leaders in our communities.

I'm interested in your feedback on what I've posed here. Is there anything of value?


Nancy Iannone said...

Honestly, one of the reasons it took me so long to comment, was trying to wrap my head around these questions!

In our community, generally the ED's have been the leadership constant,because boards fluctuate so much. Aside from issues of board function, I've seen boards that lost half their membership in a year due to unforeseen illnesses or job moves. Of course, as ED tentures have decreased, the real question becomes not who the constant is, but whether there is a constant!

Your questions about how boards would be different if they were the leadership constant are exciting to consider.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

It's a stretch, to be sure, Nancy.

I may be completely coming from left field on this one. But I do think that, conscious or not, we treat boards as extraneous and transient things. And we see the fallout from that in different, nonproductive (and even harmful) ways.