In the course of my job I talk with a lot of nonprofit board members and hear many stories; sometimes these are “fiddling while Rome burns” scenarios. In one case, a bizarre financial snafu that threatened the whole operation bubbled up time and time again over a period of years and under the watch of a board that included successful business people and financial professionals. They were never able to take decisive steps that would have removed them from the fault line. The individual board members and the organization are now in an enormously vulnerable position and they have put their constituents’ well-being at risk.
How do these things happen? The board members in such situations often seem sincere. But in my experience they may be a bit disconnected — not always completely clear about what the organization does, how it does it, and how it might do it differently.
This kind of disconnection is not good.
Board-membering requires a wise and discerning eye and an aggressively loyal commitment to the cause and the constituents we mean to serve. But we end up — because we have been told to — choosing board members for their connections to money or their skills. Sometimes when I hear a board member admit to never having been involved in the work of an organization prior to sitting on its board, it makes me despair of us nonprofits. Untested people in positions of power; why would we want to do that?
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Anyway — linked below are two articles from the summer issue on governance that propose alternative ways of peopling your boards and organizing your governance system. Judy Friewirth’s “Engagement Governance for System-Wide Decision Making” [PDF] is an important piece that I believe presages a new generation of more effective boards. It proposes a larger governance scheme than many organizations are used to but it is tiered and promises to generate not only additional creative energy and natural advocates for those that use it, but a feeding system for better boards. Let us know what you think. Are you trying anything similiar?
My article, “Board Stories Involving Humans” runs through a bunch of real-life board stories to try to discern what makes the really good ones work and what makes the unhappy ones fail.
Also in the summer issue is an article on what makes a board chair good. It is not your usual speculative stuff but is based on the early findings of a research project that you can participate in through NPQ on August 22nd. Watch for my email then. Meanwhile, subscribe today to get the findings from the first two stages of this important research.