Monday, May 11, 2015

Do this, not that: Some (potential) reasons nonprofit boards fall short of expectations

Why won't they just do what we want them to do?

My quest to explore factors - obvious and not - for nonprofit boards falling short of expectations continues. This week, that path led me to Ferdinand Fournies' book, Why employees don't do what they're supposed to do... and what TO DO about it."

Fournies' "hidden influences that affect everyone's performance" caught my eye when they were referenced in an earlier reading on performance support. As the title suggests, the book's focus - and many of the specific recommendations - are not necessarily perfect fits to the volunteer-leader board environment. But the general principles and challenges of several of the "influences" on Fournies' list absolutely can be applied to the nonprofit governance setting. Today, I select a few of the influences most likely to shape board member performance and invite you consider what you might do to help them become non-factors.

"They don't know why they should do it." Nonprofit governance is challenging and multifaceted, but it's not rocket science and board members aren't dummies. Still, I open with this one because of the dual potential that (a) they still govern from a set of discreet tasks, rather than a mission-grounded leadership foundation and (b) those discreet tasks are not communicated in the context of that larger governance responsibility (or, in some cases, not ultimately connected at all. We do them because "tradition" tells us to do them.).

"They don't know how to do it" Sometimes, we make rash assumptions that community leaders with expertise in areas of general value to the organizational understand the nonprofit environment and the specific needs that accompany it. We may need to adjust the application of our expertise to fit the nonprofit context. Or board members literally don't know how to do what we need for them to do. Two very common examples: reading financial statements and evaluating CEOs. I'm shocked, both by how common those two legitimate board learning needs are and how often the typical response is sitting back and griping about shoddy performance instead of helping the board find the resources and support to change it.

"They think something else is more important." This one is commonly grounded in two things. One, members seriously don't know what their job entails, because the board never takes the time to collectively clarify its ultimate purpose and responsibilities (or they operate from assumptions based in their experiences on another board). Two, they know the job generally but are unclear or at odds over where focus should be and how to define the ultimate priorities and approaches. Legitimate disagreement about priorities is one thing. Acting in ignorance because the board never takes the time to identify where its focus and time will be best spent is something completely different. To the extent that the board doesn't make the time to regularly reflect on those critical questions, that is its own fault. To the extent that you fill their agendas with busy work and details about management functions rather than governance priorities and questions, that is yours.

"They think they are doing it." Sadly, because so many boards lack clarity about what it means to govern, they think that sitting around listening to reports and mirroring management functions in their committee and general work is what they are supposed to do. One potentially troubling message from the national board chairs survey: board leaders generally are not accessing resources - any resources - to learn more about their responsibilities. (Remember my earlier caveat: we can't say why from the survey data alone.) It's a leap - but let's be honest, not a terribly big one - to predict that their board member peers also are not actively searching for information on best practices or alternative approaches to governance. Nope, we're all following the practices, examples and traditions of those who served before us. They - we - think this is governance.

Punishments and rewards. Okay, so this isn't exactly one of Ferdinand Fournies' influences. But it is a melding of several related to rewards and punishments and whether or not there are consequences for one's actions. I initially set all of those aside as not germane to board work. But as I prepare to close this post, I realize there is a larger theme within them that certainly does: accountability. Whether or not there are explicit rewards or punishments involved, board members have the responsibility - and the right - to ongoing feedback about their performance. We need to know where our strengths are pushing us closer to our goals and where our shortcomings are holding us, and our organizations, back. We have the responsibility - and the right - to acknowledge, even celebrate, the former. They become our next, higher foundation for the next phase of our work. We have the responsibility - and the right - to understand the latter, in a timely and supportive manner, so that we have the opportunity to make productive changes. The board owes us that. Board leadership needs to make that happen, via regular individual and group assessment.

This post already borders on "too long;" but I want to at least acknowledge additional four factors that have the potential to be major challenges in a board setting. They also are, frankly, quite straightforward - if not easy - to address. Fournies'"obstacles beyond their control" are:

  • Resources not available
  • Poor quality of resources
  • Conflicting instructions
  • Responsibility without authority

As a veteran board member, and as someone who has worked with too many boards to count, I can say that I've seen many versions of the first three. I also know that they are pretty much inexcusable. Governance resources - free and not - are abundant. If we look. High-quality resources - free and not - are plentiful. "Conflicting instructions" may show up as conflicting priorities and roles in a board setting. That, too, is a simple matter of stopping the busy work long enough to have meaningful discussions about "where we are going and how we are going to get there," and moving forward from the responses.

As with other posts in the 2015 Board Learning Environments series, I'll close with a couple of reflection questions for readers:

  • Do you recognize your board in any of Ferdinand Fournies' "hidden influences?" 
  • If so, what can you - and your board - do to neutralize that influence?


GayleGifford said...

Deb, Thank you for another thoughtful post. I think this aligns very closely with Will Brown's "Antecedents to Board Engagement." Quickly responding, or I'd do a more thorough match up.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Interesting observation, Gayle. I hadn't made that connection. Definitely will revisit Will's work with this in mind and look for those parallels. I love seeing intersections like that where we can find them!