What Staff? Keeping Operations and Governance Separate in an Organization with No Staff

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nonprofit board governance

I recently conducted a workshop for nonprofit executives and board members in my community. During the workshop, I presented and explained the generally accepted best practices in nonprofit governance. One of these is for boards to stay out of operations and focus instead on the areas of strategic direction, policy, oversight, and evaluation.

I firmly believe in this advice, as I have seen first-hand what happens when a board moves the focus of its attention to operational matters. If they are allowed to, operational activities will take over the board’s agenda and leave little or no time for important governance matters. This is not just my experience. It is the experience of almost every nonprofit CEO or ED I have discussed this subject with. Virtually all agree that nonprofit board members are drawn to operations like a moth to light. It has an almost irresistible attraction.

Why is it that board members gravitate to operations? I have some ideas, and while they have not been scientifically validated, I believe they are fairly accurate reasons for the attraction to operational matters.

  • Board members can get their arms and minds around operational issues. I know people who believe it is easier to run a 150-person operating committee than to develop a two-page policy statement for the board. Governance can be hard work, and sometimes it seems very esoteric to those trying to grasp the fundamentals.
  • The psychic and emotional payback in operations is relatively quick. You know in a short period of time if the decisions made are good ones and if the impact can be seen. Governance issues take much longer. It may take years before a new policy or governance decision provides any positive psychic reward to the board members involved.
  • In many organizations, operational activities are where the action is. It is not nearly as much fun to work on a governance matter as it is to run an event or provide some useful service.

There are probably several other reasons that we could discuss in an expanded treatment of this topic, but I have already digressed too much. So let’s return to my workshop presentation.

As I was cautioning the audience to keep board members focused on governance responsibilities and out of operational matters, a hand went up in the back of the room. The woman raising her hand said, “What do we do if the board is all there is—no staff and no other volunteers?”

Actually, this situation is not all that uncommon. Nonprofit organizations have been proliferating in recent years, and many of these new organizations are grassroots organizations without staffs.

Her question was a good one, and, frankly, one that I had not thought through carefully. My initial advice was to perhaps divide meeting agendas into two separate sessions—one on governance, and one on operational matters. Or as an alternative, I suggested separating them by holding different types of meetings at different times: one to address governance issues, and the other to address operational matters. I further suggested that no matter which of these approaches they decided on, the board chair had to keep the group clearly focused on the fact that they have two distinct duties. The first is to oversee operations in order to ensure the current success of the organization. The second is an equal or even greater responsibility to ensure the future success of the organization through such things as mission, vision, strategic direction, policy, public perception, financial sustainability, and more.

My answer seemed to satisfy the questioner, but I had a nagging feeling that I had not truly explored all the available options to help this type of organization keep their responsibilities in order. I decided to throw the question open to the experts on an online discussion group that focuses on board governance. Here are some of the suggestions that came out of the discussion group.

The first response recommended dividing the board into committees that cover both governance matters and operational matters. The suggested governance committees were finance, governance, and development. The operating committees would then be structured around the activities and/or events of the organization. Board members could serve on different committees and be engaged in both operational and governance issues, but while working in any one committee their attention would be limited to the charter of that committee.

Another response suggested dividing into two separate boards, one called the governance board, with appropriate governance responsibilities, and the other called the administrative board. Specific job descriptions would be developed for each to ensure that the two boards knew their limits and areas of responsibility.

A third recommended that the board officers oversee operational matters. The specific suggestion was that the vice president, treasurer, and secretary would oversee operational matters while the president and any remaining directors would focus their attention on governance issues. (Of course, all officers would participate in all governance discussions.)

A fourth suggestion was similar to one I mentioned earlier. Keep one board, but designate portions of the meeting for operational issues and governance matters. Another added that perhaps a physical signal could be used by the chair to designate the portions of the meeting. A colored scarf or hat worn by the chair would remind the board members to keep their focus on the type of issues to be discussed during that portion of the meeting.

A final suggestion was to take a second look at the whole nature of board committees. Specifically, this suggestion entailed throwing out the traditional committees that boards use and reorganizing into three new committees: operations oversight, organizational development, and organizational future. This option envisioned that the operating oversight committee would run the operations and keep the board informed through the use of reports and consent agenda items, freeing up the time at the board meeting to focus on strategic matters.

The important thing to note is that while the nature of the suggested techniques varied significantly, there was overwhelming agreement on a few things:

  • Operating without staff can be very difficult.
  • Operational matters can squeeze out governance matters if allowed to do so, and this should not be permitted to happen.
  • There is no single recommended way to separate the functions. It is a matter of board preference. But whichever technique is used, the board needs to discipline itself to understand and deal with both types of responsibilities, devoting the appropriate amount of time and attention to both.

Think about the options above and select the one that seems best for your organization. Give it a try. Any of these options is better than not recognizing the problem and leaving the agenda to chance and individual whims.

Excerpted with permission from You and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Practical Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers, and Provocateurs, edited by Terrie Temkin, PhD.

  • Bill Huddleston

    It sounds like one of their first priorities should be creating and expanding their volunteer program, in order to increase the capacity of the organization to perform the tasks associated with their mission, and the activities that help sustain this mission (special events, member events, etc.)

    At a fundamental level, If the only people doing all the work are the board members, does this organization need to exist?

    If yes, the operational committees you refer to should not restricted to just board members, a board member should be the chair. Committee membership (under whatever title makes the most sense, some people who wouldn’t be caught dead on the “XYZ non-profit membership committee” might love being part of the “XYZ Non-profit Ambassadors” program) should not
    be limited to board members only.

    Bill Huddleston, The CFC Coach
    MPA in Non-profit Management

  • Andrea McManus

    Mitch, This is something I have encountered quite often as well and appreciate the various options you have laid out. Just to digress as well on the reasons why I think there is another one that may well be implicit in your three however begs attention. Many nonprofits are started by people who have a deep and abiding passion for the mission. These are also the very same organizations that are unlikely to have staff. Focusing solely on governance issues makes it pretty hard to keep that connection to mission. In fact, I also find that in larger organizations with staff when the board is expected to solely focus on high level policy governance it becomes disconnected with the mission and hence a decline in the passion. This is not to say they should be involved in operations at all but meaningful opportunities to engage in their passion are crucial to maintaining interest.

  • Caroline Oliver

    A very important topic and useful to think about all the alternatives. All however assume that the difference between governance matters and operational matters is clear and it is just a question of sorting out who does which. In my experience one person’s governance matter is another person’s operational matter and you need the board to use a very careful approach to policy creation such as that in Policy Governance for everyone to really know what the difference is in their organization.

  • Mitch Dorger

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I hope the readers take the time to appreciate the great points you have added to the discussion. Best regards.

  • Walt Daniels

    Every situation tends to be somewhat unique. I am a board member, but I am also an almost full time unpaid staff member and a volunteer in several of the program committees, So it all about the hats. One must be very careful about which hat you are wearing at any given moment. and make that very clear in all interactions. Many of the other board members also serve on program committees and are encouraged to do so. It is hard for those not heavily involved to understand what the program is and remain passionate about the organization.

  • karen

    I work with non-profits and have recommended organizations without staff divide their agenda into two – the first part being governance issues – the second part being operational issues. Many volunteers do not have time to attend two separate meetings; they need to be as productive as possible during one meeting. I’ve also recommended that the whole board deal with both governance and operational issues. Dividing into committees just increases the work load and potential for misinterpretation, confusion and delayed actions. That being said – ad hoc undertakings are the best way to go. Short-time and strictly defined actions assigned to one or more people with a clear timeline; once the action is complete the undertaking ends.