Sunday, April 6, 2014

Soul-sucking nonprofit boards

 Purchased from Bigstock Photo

Is yours a soul-sucking board? Does nonprofit board service drain the life - and the enjoyment - right out of you?

I've been able to respond affirmatively to both questions too often (and too recently), which is why Harold Jarche's latest blog post, "From SSM to SLE," resonated so deeply and personally when I read it. While the post itself really addresses larger organizations, his premise - that some organizations are "soul-sucking machines" and others are "soul-liberating enterprises" - prompted quick and strong reaction.

The fact is that too many of our boards suck the soul right out of their citizen leaders. To the extent that board members don't know a different way to govern, we are not to blame. And we deserve better.  So do the organizations that we lead.

A lot of the suckage is by tradition and by design. Re-reading a book that changed my perspective on nonprofit governance this weekend reminded me of how deeply the energy-draining elements are embedded in the ways we expect our boards to function. (Expect a series on just this issue later this spring.) Still, we have the power to choose a different way of working, and small or straightforward alterations can reverse the draining impact on members.

I normally try to keep things positive here. I choose to focus on appreciating the myriad contributions that community leaders bring to the boardroom table. I try to offer counsel, resources, and actionable ideas to support their success. In this case, I prefer to lay the ugly out on the table. Too many of the "sucking" factors that follow will be all too recognizable. Once we see them, we have the power to change them.

Your board likely is a soul-sucking enterprise if one or more of these statements are true:

  • Your agendas don't ask me to think, discuss, debate, imagine.
  • They are filled with the same, tedious topics (dredging up the same tedious arguments) that never go anywhere.
  • There is an obsession with the day-to-day to the exclusion of the future, where the board's real work is found.
  • The same negative members gripe about the same things without offering potential solutions, alternatives, etc.
  • Board leaders allow those members to dominate discussion.
  • Board leaders sweep legitimate conflict and garden-variety interpersonal "stuff" under the rug because they are afraid of rocking the boat or chasing away volunteers.
  • I have no opportunity to learn.
  • I have no opportunity to reflect and use that contextual wisdom to inform discussions and decisions.
  • There is too much (or exclusive) focus and energy spent on financial oversight tasks.
  • There is no individual or board accountability for the work we do.
  • I lack a sense of why I asked to serve, beyond having a pulse, or how my presence makes a difference.
  • My legitimate needs for acknowledgment or appreciation are neither identified nor addressed. And, no, I don't mean a certificate or a mug presented at the end of my service.
  • Resources needed to make thoughtful and informed decisions are not provided in a timely manner - or worse, plopped in front of me at the meeting.
  • My fellow members and I are treated as "necessary headaches" to be managed, rather than the respected sources of wisdom, expertise, creativity and leadership that we are. We know when we are being "managed," and we resent it.

We come to the table to serve and to have an impact in our communities. We also deserve to have a personal sense of joy or fulfillment in that work. Our nonprofits deserve to have board members who are energized, inspired, and mentally prepared to give their best. We all deserve environments that make that possible. We need environments that do not suck our souls out of the room and leave us feeling drained and defeated.

What are we going to do to make that happen?

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