Monday, April 18, 2016

Accountable to whom: Member discipline, motivation belong to the nonprofit board

When a nonprofit board member falls short of expectations, who must respond? 

When a nonprofit board member needs encouragement to stretch and find a place to lead, who must offer it?

When a nonprofit board member needs a reminder of the awesome responsibility that comes with a seat at the governance table, who needs to issue the call?

To whom are nonprofit board members accountable?

I've been having this discussion with a new group of friends this week, as part of our exploration of what it means to govern a nonprofit. It's a topic that rings familiar to those with experience on either the board or the staff side because, frankly, one or more of those scenarios is all too common. It was, therefore, not terribly surprising that the responses in the group was a mix - a mix that I suspect we'd find if we gathered this blog's readers together and asked the same questions.

I'm not talking about our larger accountability to our community, to donors, and to other stakeholders. I'm talking about our accountability to the board and the organization itself. To whom are we accountable as individual nonprofit board members? To whom do we owe our best when we participate in board or committee meetings  or when we commit to specific tasks or roles that support the board's work?

In a nutshell, in the board setting, we are accountable to each other.

We make commitments to attend and participate fully in meetings. We make commitments to coming prepared for those meetings. We make commitments to carry out more focused work in committees and task forces. We make commitments to assume leadership roles that make the board's work possible, stepping up when we are called and even before we are called.

We make commitments to provide the leadership required of nonprofit governing bodies.

But we sometimes fall short, for a range of preventable and inevitable reasons. When that happens, the person(s) holding us accountable should be within the board. When we fail to turn in our reports on time, when we come to meetings clearly unprepared, when we don't follow through on commitments on which others rely, the person who deals with the issue should never be the CEO or other staff member. Peers discipline peers in a board setting. Usually, that peer is the board chair. Sometimes it may be the board's governance committee. But it always should be a peer.

The bottom line is that the board itself is responsible for its own performance. Yes, the CEO plays a critical support role as the board's leadership partner. But that person is not our nanny or our dad. 

  • We define our success parameters as a board.
  • We define the bottom-line expectations via our board job description.
  • We define our leadership role in fulfilling our organization's mission and vision.
  • We measure our progress and challenges via our self-assessment processes.
  • We identify our needs, as individuals and a group, for successful fulfillment of all of this.
  • We take responsibility for ensuring that our members have what they need to succeed.

We hold ultimate accountability for our performance as a board. An essential part of that accountability is having the tough conversations with members who are struggling or who simply don't make the effort needed to live up to the responsibilities that come with the job. If we delegate that to our CEO, either deliberately or by default, that is a board-level failure.

What performance challenges are keeping your board from full success? What individual or group issues have you been ignoring or minimizing that need to be addressed? How will you take a step toward correcting the challenges and feeding your members' motivation to bring their best to their work with you?

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