When a Board Seat Becomes Uncomfortable

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July 12, 2013; Guardian


The nonprofit board is a funny animal, perhaps not optimally designed for success. I once heard it described as the only team sport in which the team never gets to practice—yet every time they show up, it’s game day, and the action is live. The governance model is further confounded by the fact that the people with responsibility for oversight, resource generation, and strategic direction are not the same people who show up every day to deliver the work that fulfills the nonprofit’s mission.

When a nonprofit board works well, it’s a thing of beauty and a satisfying experience for all involved. More often than not, however, the nonprofit board is a bit ungainly and leaves board members and staff alike scratching their heads and wondering how they might fix the thing so it does what it’s meant to do. Assuming they’re all clear about precisely what that is, which is not always a valid assumption. The challenges are often greatest for the boards of small to mid-sized nonprofits, where the lines between governance and management seem to be more easily blurred.

Sometimes the experience of serving on a nonprofit board is an exercise in frustration. In an anonymous article in the Guardian titled “Why I stepped down as a charity trustee,” one former board member not only articulates the reasons that led to resigning after three years as a trustee, but also offers advice for staff and board leaders of smaller organizations to avoid some of the problems encountered:

  • Search widely for trustees –This point is so important! The anonymous board member urges that “the answer to a recruitment crisis on the board is to search more widely, not shrink your horizons. Even if the organisation is very small, it’s important to work towards ensuring that your trustee board represents the diversity of your users or beneficiaries.” Otherwise, the board becomes an echo chamber and insular.
  • Offer fixed-term positions—to avoid stale thinking and to offer the organization the benefit of fresh perspectives and, over time, a broader base of support.
  • Avoid empire building—try to avoid having a small group monopolize the conversation or a particular area of work. Open things up for participation! Welcome new members of committees. There is nothing worse than feeling like you are simply window dressing and that the real work will get done elsewhere by the adults, thank you very much.
  • Set boundaries—helping board members to understand their responsibilities but also providing a sense of the achievable goals expected of the board within the period of their service.
  • Make volunteering useful for both charity and trustee—allowing board members to not only use the outside expertise they bring to the organization, but to stretch themselves in new ways so they learn from the experience, too.
  • Let trustees be ambitious—so that new ideas are not dismissed but allowed to take root.

One could argue that getting the first piece right—having and executing a thoughtful board recruitment strategy—might make the other areas far less challenging.

As in any organization, so much of the experience depends on the real live people involved, and how creative they are in aligning themselves with the work that needs to be done. NPQ subscribers who haven’t already read “Board Stories Involving Humans” from the Winter 2012 governance issue should do so.

What advice would you offer a prospective board member about how to succeed in that role, or how to have a positive impact on the board culture? Or what wisdom have you gained—as a trustee or as a nonprofit staff leader—that might keep a board member from writing that letter of resignation?—Eileen Cunniffe