Boards: A Historic Relic?

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Dear Kim,

Isn’t the board structure essentially useless? Shouldn’t it be dissolved?

I and those at the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) hear variations on this question so often that we decided to make it the topic of the debate at this year’s Money for our Movements Conference, August 2nd–3rd in Baltimore, Maryland. (It’s not too late to sign up—believe me, it is the place to see and be seen!)

In real life, while I have thought something along those lines in moments of great frustration (both as a board member and as staff), I know that dissolving this structure is not realistic, and, even if it were to happen, would only create a whole new set of problems.

In my experience as a consultant working with hundreds of organizations, as well as having served on two dozen boards and having worked as an executive director, a development director, and a number of other staff positions, I see that the board is a convenient dumping ground for all the problems an organization faces. Just a recent example: I talked with a brand new executive director on her first day at work who said, “There is so much I don’t know how to do, but one thing everyone has told me is ‘watch out for the board.’” I thought she meant the board of her new organization, but she was speaking more generally. How can you enter a healthy partnership and run an effective organization when, before you even know anything about the board members, you have decided to “watch out for them?” Based on the advice of others, this new ED is insuring that her experience with the board will be dysfunctional and unpleasant. Later, as a jaded ED, she will probably give the same advice she got to some new person, never realizing how she was set up with bad advice.

The direct answer to the question, “Can a board of directors really be effective?” is both “YES” and “That’s not really the question.” An effective board both creates and reflects an effective organization. An effective organization is one that sees all of its parts (staff, volunteers, consultants, board members) as part of an ecosystem, and when each person plays their part and does their share, the system works. When one person does too much or a few people do too little, the system is strained. (I am indebted to Patricia Bradshaw, Dean of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, who was one of the first to write about the notion of a board as an eco-system. Dr. Bradshaw was a presenter at the first GIFT conference in 2006.)

Moving away from “can a board of directors really be effective?” to the pragmatic question of “how can a board of directors be most effective?” is beyond the scope of this feature. There are thousands of prescriptive articles (many in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal archive) on how to do this.

But staying committed to creating a healthy board of directors, being a great board member yourself, and working joyfully and eagerly with a board of directors as a staff person means answering a deeper question: “Why should a board exist at all?” For social justice activists, the answer is obvious: the board exists to give community people a voice that has some authority. The communities on whose behalf social justice organizations work have many members who care deeply and have a lot of experience with the issues the organization is addressing, but for one reason or another, tend not to be paid staff. The board of directors is a place for that experience to be put to use.

The question we really have to put in front of ourselves is “Are we committed to having our organization be a site for democratic practice and to reflect the values we are advocating for in the society at large?” Before you say yes, keep in mind that this is a BIG YES—a yes that must be said every day. A healthy well-functioning organization takes a lot of work. There will be times of misunderstanding and frustration, anger and resentment, but overall the work of it will create an experience few of us would trade for something else.


 

The original version of this feature was published on GrassrootsFundraising.org.

Kim Klein is an internationally known fundraising trainer and has worked in all aspects of fundraising: as staff, as volunteer, as board member, and as consultant. Kim is the author of five books including her most recent, Reliable Fundraising in Unreliable Times. Her classic text, Fundraising for Social Change, now in its fifth edition, is widely used in the field and in university degree programs. She is the author of the “Dear Kim” column in the e-newsletter of GIFT, answering questions posed by readers.

  • Lisa Haderlein

    I really enjoyed this article. My experience with boards is that too often the ED or CEO views the board as a necessary evil and tries to manage it as a rubber stamp for his or her ideas. When a board member starts asking “too many questions,” he or she is labeled a trouble maker, and viewed as the problem.

    As an ED, I try to foster a collaborative relationship between the board and me – a partnership. We all understand and respect that we are two pieces of a whole that is the nonprofit organization we are stewarding.

    One thing I would encourage all EDs to do is learn assertive communication! Rather than viewing a difference of opinion as a problem, you can learn to express yourself clearly and effectively while respecting the other person’s point of view.

    Also, learn to let go of ego in the service of the greater good. Being “right” or in control is meaningless in the big picture. If we stay focused on the organization’s mission, and realize that the board members are there because of the mission (and if they aren’t. they really need to go), I believe any differences of opinion can be worked through without drama.

    On some level, we are all trying to change the world, aren’t we? And no one of us can do that alone. Plus, no one of us has all the answers – or, let’s face it, the issues that we all work to address would already by resolved, wouldn’t they!

  • Terry Fernsler

    To Kim’s article (particularly the last paragraph) and Lisa’s comments I can only add a huge ditto! Thank you for reminding us that democratic (or at least pluralistic) decision-making and diverse voices are a necessary ingredient to tending a slice of the commons.

  • Keenan Wellar

    The essential challenge that is not really addressed here is that most non-profit systems (I am most familiar with registered charities in Canada) assign the board of directors the highest level of accountability while at the same time, a group of volunteers is not realistically capable of *directly* accomplishing that level of oversight.

    So (because it cannot realistically be direct) it becomes a matter of negotiation about how the necessary delegation takes place, and it is not easy to come to an ongoing agreement about how that works, because the organization keeps changing, boards keep changing, and usually less often, executive staff keep changing. The division between what is ends or means oriented is not always clear to everyone either…and when it does suddenly matter, there’s no easy rule book to consult to provide the answer. This shared understanding can change at any given moment based on situations that arise and how individuals respond to them within the collective.

    At any time (because there will typically be a lot of turnover, often by design) a new board member can disagree with the historical decision-making process and claim that since the board is ultimately accountable, it is totally appropriate that they take charge of which pencils to purchase. This article seems to gloss over rather lightly how serious a problem this can be or how difficult it can be to arrive at a consensus about how to appropriately delegate. I don’t think “moments of frustration” really describes the seriousness of these situations. I know many a board member and many an executive director that has been made mentally and/or physically ill from these difficulties.

    Operations of many charities are quite fluid on a day to day basis and how to value a board for their expertise and responsibility in a way that is both reasonable and functional is always complicated. The organization needs to keep operating and decisions need to be made on a daily basis, and since the board governs collectively, constant consultation is neither possible nor would most people think, desirable. And yet, the board does have this overarching responsibility and may indeed feel that the executive director should be seeking more frequent approvals – meanwhile, in the case of direct service organizations, people’s lives are in the balance.

    This is just scratching the surface of the very serious contradiction between having ultimate accountability on paper and in reality being substantially removed from daily operations and timely decision-making. The fact that some organizations make it work (or make it work until it doesn’t work) doesn’t mean it isn’t a flawed structure.

    It’s a nice idea that this is about “giving community people a voice that has some authority” but in law, that is not what boards are tasked to do, and that’s really the issue – they can’t do what they are required to do, and there are no hard and fast rules about how to come to terms with that dichotomy.

  • Karen Delaney

    Brava Kim! As usual, you are hitting the heart of this old myth. Nonprofits should stop whining about bad baords and learn how to have great Boards. I’ve been an ED for over 30 years, with a great board for 20 of those. What it took was me changing my attitude and understanding that if I believed in democracy, I better make it work in our organization.

  • Kim Klein

    Thanks to all for your comments.

    Keenan is right that there is much more to be said about the role of boards than I had space to do in my column. I didn’t address fiduciary responsibility and the difficulty of having professional staff be supervised by volunteer boards. He is right that just because some boards work, that doesn’t mean this isn’t a flawed structure. However, I hope that giving community people a voice with authority is not just a “nice idea” but is something we believe is essential to building a vibrant and equitable society. Perhaps we can come up with a different structure that resolves some of these contradictions.

    Lisa, Terry and Karen all zero in on the point I was trying to make, and they make it more clearly than I was able to! It comes down to what we believe in and our willingness to act on our beliefs every day. I am going to steal Karen’s phrase, “stop whining about bad boards and learn how to have great Boards.”

    Thanks all, for adding to the conversation.

  • Beth Gazley

    Great piece, Kim. I have nothing but optimism about nonprofit governance these days, based on the following: (1) the research on boards is good and getting better all the time, (2) the indicators of strong board performance across the c-3 sector have only improved over time, (3) we know a lot more than we used to about how to improve boards. Cheers, Beth (Co-author of “Transformational Governance”, published by ASAE Foundation/Wiley).

  • jenniferGIFT

    Thanks for reprising this article! Just a quick note to update folks that this year’s conference is happening August 12-14 in Denver, CO. You can register by March 31st to take advantage of our early bird rate of just $260. More details here: http://ow.ly/ZdtGY