Are Boards Worth the Trouble?

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Last week at the BoardSource conference,  I was set up to do a debate against the funny and brilliant Bill Ryan, with whom I almost always agree. The topic was “are boards worth the trouble?”

He took the con side and I took the pro side. It was actually a great debate. Why? Because Bill said many of the things about why boards were clearly not worth the trouble that everyone thinks at some point, and few people actually say. In the end, I won the debate (yes!) but only because I kind of guilt tripped people and also told them about my theory of governance as it relates to refrigerator bins.

The theory goes like this: I asked people to raise their hands if they had a refrigerator and then if they governed their refrigerator. They, naturally, were pretty confused but I continued, saying that I buy vegetables and put them in the proper bin where they settle down for the long haul and when I say settle down, I mean settle down. I use all the stuff I can see on the refrigerator shelves, but by the time I go into the bin to figure out what the heck is making it impossible to open the refrigerator door without wanting to abandon the property, the organic matter inside has mutated – in the worst case scenario it has grown fur and is walking around kind of buzzing.

In other words, left to my own devices, I am incapable of governing my refrigerator. My daughter is outraged by my lack of vigilance in this regard but – c’mon! I forgot it was there! That is why I need others around me, especially when I have some responsibility for something that is meant to serve the needs and interests of others.

I realize that all this may be TMI, but my point is that when we are helping to lead something complex, many of us get very focused on one realm, while another realm shape shifts inside the bin where we don’t normally look. This is why we need a group to provide the level and diversity of challenges that a nonprofit needs to keep itself true to its constituents.

Anyway, that was my argument.

But we would like to hear your arguments for or against. What do you think? Are boards worth the trouble?

  • Shelley Hamilton, MarinSpace

    Love the Refrigerator metaphor – it works, except when you have a Board member that is fixated on making sure you spend 80% of your time monitoring the butter tray (butter rarely goes bad before you use it but you don’t have to keep talking about it at every board meeting!)

  • Nikki

    I am so glad for this topic. I have worked for many nonprofits (most poorly run with non-active board). I have also tried my hand at sitting on boards that were less than pleased with my comprehension of “good” ethics, corporate compliance knowledge, grants management skills, and most importantly……….my questions regarding fiscal management as it relates to MY responsibility. I have found that it is definitely not worth my time. I’ll give my money, but I think I’m done with giving my time. It’s a shame I can’t say it to anyone honestly without being treated like a quitter.

    Boards in my neck of the woods are nothing more than social clubs. Well-connected individuals simply board hop to fill their resume, get their faces in the local paper, and make themselves feel good. They travel in packs, so no matter the organization you select, they are there. My heart goes out to the employees, but I am sitting on the sidelines………all burned out!

  • Laura

    I definitely air on the ‘pro’ side, but not just for the governance that a board provides. Board members provide valuable networks to build funds and volunteers, and they can play an imporant role in marketing and name recognition of the non-profit.

    I am currently exploring the idea of starting an Auxiliary board for my non-profit, not for guidance, but for fundraising and volunteering. I’d appreciate any feedback on this!

  • Simone Joyaux

    I very much appreciate your refrigerator governance analogy, Ruth — both from the perspective of nonprofits and from the perspective of what is happening in my refrigerator.
    I remember a “fairly typical” board meeting when I was an executive director in Lansing, Michigan, back in the ’70s: At the end of the meeting, I returned to my office, sat down in a corner behind my desk, and sobbed and wretched. My management team came in and found me there. And they were not surprised.
    It took me a few years of reflection (started by avoidance) to figure out what was going on. And a whole lot of what was going on was staring me right in the face … my face. I realized that I didn’t understand governance well enough. I didn’t understand group dynamics and privilege and power dynamics. I didn’t understand the nature of oversight and the role of conversation as a core business practice. I didn’t understand facilitating groups. I didn’t understand the distinctions between governance and management. I didn’t understand how to use all this and effectively enable (in the sense of guide, facilitate, support, etc.) others to fulfill their governance obligations.
    But even back then, crouching in the corner, I suspected that corporate governance was important. I write about it lots now…this corporate governance thing in nonprofit organizations. See my homepage blogs. See my articles and columns in NPQ. And one of these days, I will write my board book.
    But boards are only as good as staff enable them to be. No one is taught governance in their youth and growing years. We are all taught management. But staff can darn well learn about corporate governance. And the moral and ethical and business reasons to have this “body of people who, through group process, help ensure the health and effectiveness of the corporation.”
    As always, Ruth. Thank you.

  • Stephanie

    Boards are definitely worth the trouble when they perform as they should. It’s when they don’t that the ‘trouble’ begins. It seems to me that it makes the most sense to spend A LOT of time identifying the right Board members to try and avoid the drama down the line. This is very hard to do given all the demands on non-profit executives, but in the end it is time well spent.

  • Gayle L. Gifford

    I’m smiling as I touched off a bit of a firestorm myself by posing this same question on BoardSource’s LinkedIn Group a while back. I was carrying forward a conversation I started by asking a similar question on my blog ” Abolish the nonprofit board?”

    For those of us who work with and on boards every day, we keep asking ourselves this same question. Sometimes they seems so worth it, other times not so much. The structure seems antiquated at times, the list of responsibilities impossibly long.

    But I do think ultimately it comes down to the question: who has the moral and legal responsibility for making sure the organization fulfills its social compact with its community? I don’t think we can leave this solely to the Executive Director (who’d hire that person anyway?). And I’ve had many an Executive Director who ran the show with minimal board input explain how alone they felt… kind of like your refigerator, maybe?

    Perhaps we can leave the ultimate responsibility to our clients, maybe to ourmembers, but many organizations don’t have such creatures. And collective governance at that scale requires even more care and feeding and training and practice and supportive culture building.

    So I guess we’re kind of stuck with the board model we have right now.

  • Jack Shakely

    I’m pro boards, but I’m pro anchovies, too. A little bit goes a long way.

  • Larsen Jay

    I believe if a board is properly developed they can be very effective. I know in our very small organization (Random Acts of Flowers), a strong and very active board is essential to our mission fulfillment and success. Since our staff size is so minimal, we rely heavily on the board members throughout the year, and we set those bold expectations right off the bat.

    In addition, I believe a well-rounded board will serve as a great sounding board and if they care, they’ll challenge you to think through each major decision – ultimately leading to great decisions. The worst board is one who simply rubber-stamps initiatives and actions.

  • David Lynn

    If you regularly sat your board down just to tell them what was in the fridge, everybody would quickly find that worthless.

    If you couldn’t make dinner without asking your board what you should eat, you would probably start eating out all the time and abandon the fridge.

    If you ask your board occasionally for a recipe to help you make the best use of what’s in the drawer, you’ll probably find a good fit. Too far extreme on either side of “ignore the board” or “give the board all the control” won’t get you regular, delicious meals and no wasted food.

  • Alonzo Villarreal

    Are boards worth the trouble? From a strictly legal standpoint the answer is yes. And I suppose that duty of care, loyalty and obedience incorporate governance somwhere in that structure.

    Getting away from the technical, yes – if governance training is incorporated into the recruitment, development and retention strategies of the board. Otherwise the question becomes very problematic.

  • Douglas Robinson

    Ruth, Boards are absolutely worth their trouble, in fact an excellent Board is worth its weight in gold. That’s why NeighborWorks America teamed up with Boardsource (your recent host) on the Excellence and Governance project. You can see details of it on our website,, or go right to the page and thought provoking video at

    I hope that NeighborWorks America can keep you updated on the developments with our Excellence in Governance partnership with Boardsource.

  • Jan Buchler

    Thank you for this opportunity, Ruth! I read your article right after our board meeting (noon-1:30pm). In a nutshell, if your board isn’t worh it, perhaps you have the wrong people on your board. After 14 years as Executive Director of a modest-sized nonprofit, I am continuously grateful for the commitment, vigilance, and candor of our board directors (currently 17). To the extent that I keep them well-informed, provide due diligence to the tasks at hand, and create an atmosphere of transparency and positive energy, they are a tremendous support system and provide divergent thinking, creative solutions, critical connections, and strategic guidance. I usually rate the success of each of the 9 annual board meetings not only by attendance and participation levels, but by how many board questions arise and how well I anticipated and prepared for them. I have compared the interaction of boards and executives to a dance. Sometimes it’s magical and sometimes we stumble – and the stumble becomes part of the dance – because we’re a team.

  • Sydney Roberts Rockefeller

    I am the head of a Board that rarely meets. It is a small museum in a small village. One other board member and I do most of the work. They are not worth the effort.

    I am Vice-president of another Board. The Executive Committee runs the organization. The rest of the Board is sometimes useful, but not worth the effort.

    Another Board I am on is essential as we do ALL the work. If it didn’t have a Board, there would be no organization.

    My conclusion? Yes and No depending on the Non-profit.

  • Nancy LaBelle

    I agree with Laura and air on the pro-side!

    Unfortunately it’s very difficult to find board members with great connections and the desire to fundraise and that is what we need. When you do however it can be really good. They must be passionate about the cause and believe that what they are doing impacts many lives. I would love to see a forum on how people find great board members. We have tried just about everything I believe but someone may have a good idea. We have a great president right now and we could both use the help.

    As ED the biggest part of my job is making sure we have the funds to keep our doors open. Without a board our small staff would be doing everything ourselves as it relates to events etc. I believe a board overseeing or someone overseeing the accounting other than staff is a good idea. I have see many non profs go down or be taking advantage of because of little or no financial oversight. I do agree however the whole governing thing can be quite perplexing.

    Difficulty surrounding boards also comes from it being a voluntary position. The folks you have on our board are usually working full time, have families, and sometimes over commit…. Nature of the beast. All with great intentions

    Laura if you set up an auxiliary board would you be willing to share your success or process etc? I am wanting to do this myself. I wil share too… my email is
    Nancy LaBelle, Executive Director, Down Syndrome Connection of the Bay Area

  • Edie Patterson

    I think boards are well worth the trouble-and I love the analogy used! My analogy is that running a successful nonprofit, whether from the board or staff side, is a bit like raising children. It’s really really hard to do alone, requires near constant attention, conversation, occasional (if you’re lucky) missteps, and if done right truly benefits the community. For nonprofits to last beyond the founder’s dream, there must be a community of people dedicated to it’s growth and willing to keep training new supporters. That’s a board and it’s committees.

  • Nikki

    Hi Laura,

    This is a great idea! There is one task for which this team comes together for. You know the expectation up front (to help out the staff and to raise money). I still believe these are functions your board MUST participate in, otherwise they are not fully completing their jobs. The Auxiliary Board will do all the work, and the governance board will receive all of the credit.

  • Marc Brenman

    I think that boards are not worth the trouble. I had a big problem with one a few years ago. Board members were lazy, uninformed, interested only in their own group, and made judgments emotionally. They made no attempt to get more money for the organization.

  • Anne Dalton

    At the last minute I had to miss the BoardSource conference which most definitely was a disappointment as I looked forward to a number of the sessions and most especially to the energy and interaction among people who are at least curious about nonprofit governance. That said while I like much of Ruth’s analogy, I hold out for a more affirmative role for boards and governance….and perhaps that’s where the conversation should be. Are boards necessary for governance??? I would love to know what Bill Ryan’s “cons” were……

  • Paul Hanscom, @paulhanscom

    The structure of board governance is much like the structure of democracy – it’s slow, inefficient, and frustrating, but it’s the best approach we’ve got given every other alternative.

  • Greta Lint

    Are boards worth the trouble? Yes, they are.

    A board theoretically represents a community or a membership organization and brings ideas and direction to the table. In the absence of an executive director, a board operates the organization until it gets strong enough financially to hire a director. At that point, the board should revert to being an advisory voice and work through the executive director.

    Some boards actually work that way and do it very effectively.

    Additionally, a board can be blamed when programs or strategies don’t work as planned. It is much better to blame an entity than a person.

    However, I can write volumes about boards which should be overhauled.

  • Caroline Oliver

    Boards are definitely worth the trouble. Legitimacy, accountability and sustainability cannot be provided by the executives (usually in the form of one Chief Executive) deciding on their own salaries, goals and standards of prudence and ethics. Boards are the essential link between an organisation’s legal and moral owners and its executive.

  • Kathy

    I agree with the value of boards. What is critical is to have a good recruitment and training/orientation program for board members with specific expectations about roles & responsibilities. I think most board members want to be helpful. And board leadership has to keep reminding members – and encouraging them to be involved. My only concern about auxiliary boards is that you may diminish the board’s commitment to their fiscal accountability for fundraising.

  • D Ann Neal

    Absolutely! Each of our Board members is chosen with great care. We actually take them to lunch and “interview’ them, which gives them the opportunity to “interview” us and ask any questions they may have about our mission, etc. They learn what is expected of them and that we are very intentional about filling slots on our Boards. We are looking for certain expertise (i.e., attorney, accountant, HR expert, insurance agent, retired executive of a major utility, retired school teacher, realtor, banker, etc.), and we expect their attendance, participation, and support. We do not even entertain the idea of having a political figure and anyone who is motivated by an additional listing for a resume’! Nuff said!

  • Howard McGowan

    I board is desireable to have the opinions and mission accomplished for the membership if they are from different locations,backgrounds,and issues. What is needed to make a board function efficently is a STRONG PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD to stay on subject and a followup up on the Executive director of the opperation.

  • Kim Brumber

    Yes, I do think we need Boards/Board Members; if utilized well there is incredible value in having a board. What needs to adapt is the model. The board structure was developed when markets shifted every five to ten years – now the markets we work within can shift every five to ten days! Our organizations are changing rapidly and exist in an environment that is constantly changing. Due to this we need a model that allows our boards to be nimble and responsive; yet by its nature, board governance takes more time due to the fact that they are volunteers and often times don’t meet more than once a month. Someday, when I have conquered my “to-do” list, I will work on this dilemna!

  • C Brown

    The question is not whether but who. I now report to a board of practitioners related to our organization’s mission…plus a few more stakeholders. It’s so helpful to have a group of people, with various points of view on our issues, genuinely interested in moving ahead. In the past I reported to a board with people bulking up their resumes, people that didn’t have enough experience to serve an organization well, and just plain jerks. It didn’t end well. I’ve helped a couple of boards on which I serve by bringing business and nonprofit experience, along with business and finance education.

    Advice: If you don’t know what the organization is really about, don’t join its board.
    If you just want to help the cause by volunteering, volunteer a different way.
    Corollaries: If you’re recruiting board members, consider the above advice.

  • Nancy Sabin

    I’m glad to hear a discussion like this is at hand, allowing input from professionals in the field! How delightful that people have the courage to speak up about a topic that frustrates many on a daily basis.
    I believe boards are needed and that they can be invaluable for a nonprofit’s growth and development. However, there are countless stories and much research that validate many nonprofit boards often operate as dysfunctional groups when the board of directors fail to use sound decision-making, effective communication strategies and exemplary leadership skills.

    As we all know, the law states a board of directors must be part of a public charity. Candidly, most people view charities as a place “to give back”, a place to obtain valuable products or services and/or as an experience to add to their resume. Few people see nonprofits as complex organizations working to create social change, uniquely different from the profit-drive corporate sector. The difference between management and governance is wider than the Grand Canyon!

    As a result, many people join a board naively, wanting to “sell stuff” or to increase their value in an industry, to clients or to their boss. New directors often don’t understand what constitutes a conflict of interest or what might board on dysfunctional problem-solving!

    That said, there are many examples of effective boards that ADD to the resources of an charitable organization, by offering their time, treasure and talent to serve the mission in an above-board manner (versus serving their own interests). Sadly, there are also many boards that DRAIN from the resources/focus of a charitable organization when they place their self-interests above the mission work of the charity or they try to problem-solve outside the board room.

    When we check our egos at the door, looking candidly in the mirror, most of us know the difference. The key is for each director and officer to demonstrate the courage to speak up and to act in good conscience when the latter of the two situations is occurring within the boards we serve. When we build a balanced board with a few first-time directors and more seasoned directors of diverse backgrounds, the mission work will be enhanced as healthy leadership, communications and problem-solving occur.

  • Lisa Bronowicz

    Even so, I’ve seen much more harm done by out of touch and arrogant boards than I’ve seen by the furry vegetables in my refrigerator, if you get my drift. Some oversight and all the accountability in the world is needed, for sure. Many nonprofits today are complicated entities, and most boards just don’t get them.Too complex. The members won’t take the time to learn the business they are to oversee, sad to say, and all they do run on is their “divinely acquired” wisdom. “I’m a board director, I must know more than you do, why else was I elected.” seems to be the thinking. It destroys many nonprofits.

  • Ron Wormser

    If it’s not too late to comment:

    Many of our nonprofit colleagues either don’t know or, in the crush of work, forget that states – where nonprofits are chartered to do business – hold boards responsible for their organizations, not management.

    Moreover, state laws are very clear re what a board’s responsibilities are, and are not.

    Too often these legal obligations to the state are ignored in favor of other arguments re obligation to ‘the organization’ or ‘other stakeholders’.

    Ignoring what is, first and foremost, paramount re a board’s role and responsibilities is a disservice to all.