• 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

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  • Third Sector Radio USA

    Three years later and I have one additional comment: As Kim indicates–be sure you are asking the right questions!
    Terry Fernsler

  • Don Major

    Very insightful article. I learned a long time ago that if you’re not asking the right questions, the answers received will not be very useful. I remembers years ago, a wise counselor gave me advice on how to approach my first college class. “If you see the professor as your adversary, you will be in for a battle. If you see the professor as your guide and counselor, you will enjoy learning in college.” So said, so done. We have been often advised that it’s all in the attitude. If and when we accept the premise that boards are a vitally important component of business operations and bring value to the table the focus moves to how to get value, how to work more effectively with the board, how to ensure you build an effective board. But since nothing is sacred or taboo nowadays, we will probably always face questions about the value and raison d’etre of the board. So we should always be prepared to defend the proposition. They are hardly ever easy, but their value is a proven commodity in my book.