Nonprofit Boards – Supporting Management & Staff Without Micromanaging

The dilemma is common to nonprofit organizations. As start-ups, everyone aspires to do everything. Passion for the mission and determination to “get it right” imbue directors with the desire to do it all. But once the organization starts to mature, board roles shift to focus more broadly on policy and strategy issues. With the advent of qualified personnel to handle operations, there are many overview activities, sans micromanaging, available to board members. The following are some ways that boards can assist and demonstrate support for operations, CEOs and staff without interfering.

  • Providing help: This can range from suggesting free software to making sure that the CEO is not trying to do more than he/s should. In the latter situation, the CEO might unwittingly be limiting the nonprofit’s growth potential.   For example, one CEO I encountered had to travel a great deal, visiting local affiliates to generate development opportunities. As a result, the central office functions lacked appropriate supervision. He acknowledged the problem but hesitated to hire a COO because he perceived budget restraints. As a result, the board accepted a level of inefficiency in the central office.   Four years into the CEO’s 12-year tenure, he and the board decided to dip into reserves to engage a COO.  With this assistance, the nonprofit was able to successfully expand.
  • Use Networks: Board members should make a list of unique professionals who might be helpful and enlist their support—physicians, accountants, web designers, sales managers, etc. These outside advisors are valuable working on a pro bono basis. But the CEO and other board members may not have the interpersonal networks to access them. One nonprofit, for example, had an active audit committee but lacked a hard to find an accountant.  A board member had an acquaintance with a CPA certificate and interested him in joining the audit committee.
  • Respect Management & Staff: The Board needs to accept the CEO as a professional manager, not as a person dedicated to a field specialty—police officer, physician, attorney, etc.—with part-time management efforts. * He/s should know how to hire well, interrelate with staff, board and other stakeholders and make certain day-to-day operations are effective and efficient. It is possible, however, to have a mediocre board and effective management and staff that is devoted to the nonprofit’s mission. Hopefully, a few board members recognize the situation and are able to build a culture of respect for the management and staff, often a difficult task when the board is micromanaging the nonprofit.
  • The Importance of Long-Term Goals: Currently nonprofits tend to plan on a three-year to five-year cycle because the environments in which they operate change so quickly. With nonprofit board members having 4-6 median terms, this suggests many will have one short-term outlooks. But, in my opinion, much longer-term planning needs to be considered, perhaps for as long as ten years. This way current planning can influence longer-term planning. This generative thinking will also provide some benchmarks for the types of abilities and skills that future CEOs will need to possess.
  • Understand Psychological & Non-Monetary Benefits: Flexible benefits are required by nonprofits to compete with businesses and other nonprofits paying higher wages. For example, in many areas, hospital chains compete with human service agencies for people with social-work abilities. They must also compete with businesses for computer specialists. One way is to offer flexible scheduling to all personnel needing it. Another way is for the board to formally honor staff for successes and make certain that management provides appropriate praise frequently, a requirement for millennial generation staff.
  • Empower the CEO and staff: Boards need to be sure that the CEO is fully empowered to make tactical operating decisions without board interference. On an overview basis, the board needs to request management to ask small staff teams to work on projects that can yield tangible results. This will encourage groups and teams to become more responsible.

Within its overview responsibilities, board members can be quite proactive in assisting management and staff when they meet routine operational challenges. The above discussions demonstrate ways this can be accomplished. Nonprofit boards can add to them to meet local challenges.

Note: Some growing nonprofits, unfortunately, elect the CEO from the staff and allow him/h to continue to have some staff responsibilities.


Dr. Eugene Fram
Dr. Eugene Fram
Eugene H. Fram, Ed.D., is an expert in nonprofit governance, a business consultant and an award-winning emeritus professor of the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He is also the author of six books and more than 125 published articles and has been widely quoted by national media on topics ranging from business to high-performance nonprofits. His blog platforms on nonprofit governance have in excess of 3500 followers. He is a past recipient of RIT's highest award for outstanding teaching and one of a very select group awarded the Presidential Medallion, given to those making exceptionally significant contributions to the university. In 2012, a former student anonymously contributed $3 million to endow an RIT Chair in Critical Thinking in his name, an honor Dr. Fram describes as "a professor's dream come true!" Over his distinguished career, he has served on 12 nonprofit boards overseeing diverse community, national and professional organizations, and also has served on five for-profit boards. His particular passion is helping nonprofit boards perform at high levels as more is expected of these boards today than most people realize. He is the author of Going For Impact – The Nonprofit Director's Essential Guidebook: What to Know, Do and Not Do, and POLICY vs. PAPER CLIPS - How Using the Corporate Model Makes a Nonprofit Board More Efficient & Effective.

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