Sunday, November 16, 2014

The state of our nonprofit boards: A few observations from the field

What exactly is the state of our nonprofit boards? What are the challenges, as seen in my field work and research? Where is my time best spent in the future as a board consultant and educator?

I've been reflecting on that more than usual lately, as I continue to work on a book, explore other board development-focused projects, and consider future directions for this blog.  As I do that, and as I also continue to reflect on my many interactions with boards, I keep coming back to a few common themes that drive (and occasionally trouble) me. Acknowledging that my experiences - and those of the boards with whom I've interacted - ultimately represent only a small snapshot of what occurs in the larger nonprofit community, I offer up a few of those themes in the spirit of knowing that they will ring familiar with many here.

Theme 1: Boards don't have a clue what they've really signed on to do.

For that, I blame the sector as a whole. We've done a terrible job of jointly creating and advancing a holistic understanding of nonprofit governance. As a result, boards really don't have a firm grasp of what they take on when they say yes to a term. Some sources have made reasonable attempts to create a bottom line, though we've completely failed to share even that work broadly. (I used to watch the color drain from board members' faces when I introduced the BoardSource 10 basic responsibilities as a starting point.) We treat the most basic attempts to shed some light on what it means to be a board member as trade secrets to be hidden at all costs.  Then we gripe when they fall short of those unstated expectations. That is unfair and unrealistic.

We've completely and utterly failed to communicate the bigger picture, the one that truly immerses boards in work that connects them and commits them to advancing the world-changing missions and visions that they are called to define and protect. One potential "bigger picture" already exists in Chait, Ryan and Taylor's revolutionary Governance as Leadership framework. But the lack of discussion, or even access to information about that model, is distressing. Frankly, I can't even keep a reliable set of bookmarked resources alive to share so we can have a discussion.  (Go ahead. Click on a few of those links. I'm betting some already have vanished, even though I review them regularly.) Sure, they can buy the book. But few board members and leaders know it exists. Even fewer have the time and money to purchase and read it. The point is, we need to do a better job of making information and ideas like this broadly accessible to those who need and want it.

Practically speaking, I'm seeing the need for a sector-level commitment to board performance support, more than training. That is the direction my own work will be taking.

Theme 2: What they know over-emphasizes the fiduciary/oversight role.

No, I'm not discounting those important responsibilities. Yes, oversight is an important board function. But it's not the only function of nonprofit governance and it's the one that is most likely to cause members to mentally check out or run for their lives when things get tough. Even when that's all boards focus on, many do a terrible job of it because they're not appropriately educated/prepared and they don't ask the types of inquiry questions that help them uncover the larger issues and opportunities. They just stare at financial statements that may tell only a portion of the true fiduciary story.

Theme 3: They want to be stretched, but the prospect scares them.

I regularly have conversations with boards about what governance really should be like, about the questions they should be asking, about the new ways of structuring their work to accommodate this change/expanded role. Most react positively, even enthusiastically, but they frequently balk. They want to say "YES!" But they stop short of doing so.

Many fear giving up the familiar, or at least traditional ways of dealing with the familiar. It may be work they hate, but they at least know what is expected. This is uncharted territory for many board members. They want clear, specific, definable steps for how to do what I am asking. When I can't always give exactly that, or when what I suggest sounds challenging or new (translation: potential to fail), the response too often is, "Well, then..." And they go no further.

My first reaction to this is to recognize my own responsibility to continue to develop ways to make the work of governance actionable. All of the work, especially the expansive inquiry, creativity and assessment capacities required of generative and strategic governance. As an adult educator, I know that that's a legitimate and very real need of board members. It is my job as a board consultant and coach.

However, I also recognize the need to keep pushing them to try something - anything - that initiates the process of transforming the way they work and govern. One of our biggest mistakes, in my mind, has been trying to reduce nonprofit governance to a series of easy steps that won't scare away prospective members. The important work that we ask them to do seldom is easy, and it's almost never reduced to a few quick steps that they can wrap up in one two-hour meeting. Yet we continue to conceptualize and structure the work as if that were the case.

We need to stretch them, support them in that stretch, and display confidence in their capacity to succeed when they do. They are smart people, after all. They are community leaders, chosen for all that that leadership entails. We need to finally act as if that were the case. Because it is.

Theme 4: The board and ED co-lead with complementary but not identical interests.

Nonprofit governance carries enormous leadership responsibility and potential for impact, but too many boards act as if that were news to them. Instead, many passively accept work tasks that, if not directly defined by the CEO, are heavily influenced by that person's agenda. Too many boards either don't understand, or don't choose to accept, the fact that both parties have legitimate, complementary responsibilities that together provide the leadership needed for the organization to move beyond mere survival.

See Theme 1 for a big part of the context for this one. Boards - and often CEOs - generally don't know better.  Sometimes, sadly, it's also often by design. I've worked with many EDs whose sole purpose in calling me in seems to be to act as the big meanie who'll straighten out their boards as if they were naughty children. That pretty much never works, mostly because that's not the real problem behind their boards' performance breakdowns.

We need to do a better job of not only creating and reinforcing bottom-line expectations but creating and supporting board self-empowerment. That starts with empowered and supported board leadership. It continues with empowered boards who work with their executives but who accept their own set of responsibilities that work in tandem with that person.

Theme 5: When boards are bored, fatigue hits more quickly and performance suffers.

Let me be frank. I see many willing hearts, hands and souls in the field. But mostly, I see a lot of bored board members who feel helpless to change their situation. That is not a place of empowered leadership. It's not reality. But it is their reality unless we do something to change that. Maintaining "the way we've always done it" will not do that. Treating generative discussions and fun breaks from the routine as something we do once a year, at the annual retreat (where they give up a precious Saturday to participate), will not do that. We need to commit to finding new ways to engage, educate, and stimulate our board members. We do not do that by adding on to an already long evening meeting. We need to commit to tossing out the dysfunctional practices and embedding those ways into the work that our boards do - acknowledging along with them that it may feel uncomfortable at first, but affirming that doing so will not only make them more productive but more personally fulfilled.

Inspired board members, who regularly do work that sparks their imaginations and draws on their greatest personal potential, are board members who will succeed collectively. The winners will be our organizations and our communities. Why in the world do we not act as if we don't know or want that?

Writing this particular post has been more of a "thinking aloud" experience for me as a reflective practitioner than an informative piece for readers. I chose the graphic to accompany this post as a personal reminder that I need to continue to translate this knowledge into actions and products that support the transformative work I'm addressing here and elsewhere.

It also is renewing my personal commitment to continue to build my voice, not only as an educator of boards but an advocate of boards. The more I continue along this journey, the more convinced I am that the latter may end up being my most important professional role.

What I hope it will offer readers is a chance to confirm or contrast your experiences with what I'm sharing here. More important, I hope it will inspire you to engage in a conversation about the similarities and differences - and that we might think together about what we can do to strengthen and support our nonprofit boards.


Lori L. Jacobwith said...

You nailed it! Board members are people who want to make a difference, they simply don't know how. Thank you for so clearly articulating what I believe and talk about often.

The responsibility to create and maintain great boards is being abdicated for finger-pointing & lack of accountability by both staff and boards. Thank you for keeping this important conversation alive, Debra.

GayleGifford said...

I think a good part of the difficulty of being a board is that there is little legal guidance as to what a board is supposed to do. Historically, they are fiduciaries, which is to be responsible "for the administration, investment and distribution of property that belongs to someone else" (From Bruce Hopkins). As fiduciaries, they are supposed to be prudent and reasonable.
This is what RI state law says about the board of directors job "The affairs of a corporation are managed by a board of directors."
This doesn't provide much guidance, does it. Thus boards are left to construct for themselves what their role is in the organization. And that, in my opinion, is an ongoing, forever work in progress, for our sector, and for every organization in it.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I appreciate your willingness to be part of that conversation, Lori. Very grateful for your insights here, and for the knowledge that you so willingly share on your own blog ( We need to get past the finger pointing so that we can work together to support ALL of our boards in their efforts to lead.

Gayle, your wisdom is most valued as always (your blog also is on my must-read list: I suspect that what you've shared from Rhode Island resembles what most states offer (Wyoming's isn't much more descriptive, for example.). I agree completely that they are left alone to figure all of this out - and that that tends to fall more naturally along the fiduciary lines, for the reasons you describe, because they usually have someone (e.g., funders) mandating that reporting, and because it's work with which they are familiar (even if they aren't comfortable).

I see two levels (at least) of concern. One is developing a larger picture of what nonprofit governance really is meant to be (with a broad range of resources to help make that actionable). Two is finding ways to make all of the resources available - including sites like our three blogs - accessible to boards and senior staff everywhere. Ultimately, that's what drives us: the chance to share and inspire and inform practice across the sector - and help them make an impact.

Now, how do we do that? That's the burning question for me.

Gratitude for all that you both do to advance a more vibrant and effective nonprofit sector - and for helping to start this conversation.