There are organizations devoted to it. There are conferences focusing on it. There are endless numbers of experts on the Internet opining about it. But when it comes to nonprofit boards and board development, what do we actually mean?
As an example, an opinion piece by Jeb Banner for Inside Indiana Business discusses the benefits of board engagement. He says the single most accurate predictor of the success of a nonprofit organization is the active engagement of the board and its individual directors. He goes on to describe some of the symptoms of engaged and not-so-engaged board. Basically, it boils down to whether or not the board is “leaning in.”
He goes on to make three suggestions about how to make a board lean in. One is to have good meetings, with meaningful elements of the agenda front-loaded. Another is to be explicit about volunteer and fund development expectations. The third is to have regular evaluations of board effectiveness as a whole, and for the individual directors. But then what? What do these things help the board to actually do?
Another example comes from a piece by Madison Gerdts for the Delaware Business Times, who writes more specifically about the role of treasurer of the board. Gerdts describes the role of treasurer as being quite important for the successful and effective nonprofit organization. It is a role that requires some very specific expertise in addition to the passion for mission and desire to serve that every board director should have.
Gerdts shares 10 ideas that she would recommend for a new treasurer. These range from touching base with your predecessor to making sure you know how the IRS form 990 works. She describes the role as having significant decision-making responsibility and serving as something of a liaison between the financial management of the nonprofit and the board. But then what? What do these things actually help the treasurer of the board do?
Banner has founded two nonprofits, has served on several boards, and is the CEO of a nonprofit called Boardable, an organization that makes a software program designed to help manage boards more effectively. We might assume he knows whereof he speaks. Looking at the Boardable website, we find the phrase, “Empower your nonprofit board with the right tools so you can focus on leading, not just managing.” So, can we assume he believes the role of the board is to lead? Lead where, and who is following?
Gerdts is a CPA candidate working at Whisman Giordano, a firm that has a number of nonprofits clients. Gerdts specializes in nonprofit work so, again, we can assume that she has experience with treasurers. In her description of the role of treasurer, she uses that term—“leadership”—encouraging the treasurer to embrace that role. She suggests that the treasurer should feel good about the work they are doing to help forward the important mission of the organization.
Leadership and leading are nebulous concepts in so many ways and particularly so when applied to a nonprofit board. Writers like Gerdts and Banner seem well-intentioned, but they are not really addressing the important questions that face nonprofits and their boards. They are speaking banalities, essentially, targeted to a reader who is new to the nonprofit world. What they write does not take into consideration how differently boards engage based on the culture, age, mission, size, and location of the organization. Boards will have different roles and different ways of engaging based on each of those variables, let alone the skills that are already on the staff and do not need to be duplicated by a board director.
So, it’s good to remember the ideas these “experts” keep forwarding, but let us also take them with a grain of salt, knowing that at least partially the articles are often intended to help sell the writer’s service or product.—Rob Meiksins