"What if our board no longer existed? What would be lost?"
This week's "inquiring nonprofit boards" post comes from multiple sources - frequently asked or offered as wistful fantasy when governing bodies seem to cause more trouble than they are worth. Occasionally, the "what use are boards, really?" is posed in all seriousness by individuals and organizations withing and around the perimeters of the sector wanting to know:
Are nonprofit boards worth the trouble? Do they bring anything of actual value?
Now, I can imagine conversations affirming the leadership, community outreach and significant skills both within boards on which I've served and with which I've worked. There would be an element of truth to those conversations, as each brings some mix of valued contributions to their organization. Some of those boards could legitimately respond that the organization would be lost without them, as they largely live up to the lofty expectations of governance.
Those affirmative conversations are legitimate and valuable, both for acknowledging the gifts that members bring/responsibilities they fulfill and for defining the foundation from which to expand to reach the board's full potential.
But let's not be afraid to admit the less-than-rosy picture when it is a fair representation. Boards can be dysfunctional. Boards can be passive and unfocused. Boards can be a terrible drain on CEO time and energy, without a corresponding leadership return.
We need to be honest in acknowledging where we fall short - or completely fail - in meeting our full range of governance responsibilities.
A high-functioning governing body provides leadership, vision and outreach that only a group of passionate, committed community volunteers can bring to the table. Boards offer legitimacy, by their simple existence and by their active engagement in the community, that staff cannot offer. But they must bring their best to the boardroom if they are to respond with complete positive confidence to this question.
This is a conversation that all boards need to have, with some degree of regularity. It's not only a chance to recognize and grow from their strengths. It's also a chance for a gut-check about where we have fallen short in the past and a commitment to change.
Could your staff do just fine without you? Would they miss your leadership and your unique contributions to advancing your mission? Is their impact felt, within the organization and in your community?