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What's The Deal With Nonprofit Boards?

The quality of the relationship between the non-profit board and the organization it governs is one of the most critical contributors to organizational health and success. In practice, the risks of dysfunction between board and staff are high, and can get in the way of effective operation.

The American Alliance of Museums identified the need to strengthen board governance as a priority, and at the annual meeting in May presented the findings of the Museum Board Leadership 2017: A National Report study. The report explores and identifies issues and priorities for consideration as museums seek to move forward in challenging times.

Kathleen Brown (COO, Lord Cultural Resources) and Alex Zwissler (Principal, Einstellung Labs), both experienced in working with boards and managing the board-staff relationship, had a conversation to share insights.

AZ

There’s an issue that I’ve been chewing on for the last few years that I’d love your take on. In essence, what’s the deal with non-profit Boards? I ask from the perspective that there is often quite a bit of frustration with them, both on the part of CEO/Executive Directors and that of board members themselves. Issues range from too much micromanagement to not enough oversight; from insufficient support for development to spending too much time on pet projects, and so on.

What is fascinating is that these are not new challenges, but have been with us for a long time… What gives? Why do you think these issues are so persistent, and more importantly, do you think there really are any good solutions?

KB

There seems to be a long-standing tension between staff leadership and boards of public benefit organizations – at Lord, we see this in our work with some frequency. As is true for many organizational tensions, overall, I suggest that communication and aligned expectations are key to successful board-staff relations.

A contributing factor is the nature of the public benefit organization/non-profit - they operate with a currency of trust and community-based social capital. Boards select their membership from a “pool” of constituents or community representatives – those who benefit from the organization’s services or programs and/or those who substantially contribute to the deployment of those services – or those community connectors or "influencers" who facilitate access to social capital. Many of these representatives may have had limited board experience and don’t really know what is appropriately expected from them. Or, they may have served on other boards where “bad” board habits were not called out or corrected, perpetuating a cycle of dysfunction.

You've also been on both sides of this divide -- what's you're take on the issues and solutions?

AZ

I generally agree with your diagnosis. As to causes of the often-dysfunctional relationship, I’d add a few more before we pivot to solutions. Frankly, one that needs to be called out is questioning the reason folks join boards in the first place.

We often see individuals doing so more because it looks good on a LinkedIn profile than out of commitment to the cause they are there nominally to support. Then there are the social drivers, where Boards are constituted essentially of a group of friends. Both of these situations can be generally fine, so long as the institution is just plugging along… The challenge arises when times of stress or crisis arise. Finally, I’d add that we also often see CEO/ED’s that are somewhat unhappy about their Boards, but seem unwilling to take sufficient accountability for that unhappiness. I could go on, but you get the point.

KB

Most non-profit boards do not invest in a holistic process of “board development” from start to finish – and by this, I mean strategic identification, recruitment and selection of prospective board members; careful onboarding and orientation of new board members; and ongoing board education for current board members. The principles and tenets of good board governance practice are widely available – BoardSource, for example is loaded with great advice, learning materials and tools – but too seldom are these processes enacted and followed through in the non-profit board environment. Note that each of these activities, appropriately applied, result in clearer communications and expectation management.

I believe that investing in the time and resources it takes to “train up” a board are well worth it and will pay off in the long run. But first, the board has to become aware that there are ways to improve AND that they need to do better. And that’s where it can be very valuable to utilize outside expertise and consultants.

AZ

Frankly I’m inclined to agree. I had started to think that there may be some structural failures in how non-profit Boards are constituted, but in reality, the challenge of one of execution. As I look at the most successful Boards, and therefore, no surprise, the most successful non-profits, they are all extremely serious and rigorous in their consistent application of the holistic Board development process you outline above. In addition, they hold themselves highly accountable. But as you say, if they are not prepared to recognize the need for their own development and growth, they can get stuck. Good thing there are clever folks like us out there to help, right?

If you are looking to make some change in your organization, both Lord Cultural Resources and Einstellung Labs can help you out. Organizations succeed when they plan. Einstellung Labs can work with you to develop a clear roadmap for success. We help complex organizations solve difficult problems in program development and review, strategic partnerships, board governance, business plan development, fundraising and community engagement. And we do all of this with a twinkle in our eye…


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