Clearly, the purpose of a nonprofit board is to serve the constituency that establishes it—be it community, industry, governmental unit, and the like. That said, the “how” to best deliver that service is often not so clear. An executive committee, for example, can overstep its authority by assuming powers beyond its scope of responsibility.
I encountered this in one executive committee when the group developed a strategic plan in an interim period where there was no permanent ED. The board then refused to share it with the incoming executive. In another instance, an executive committee took it upon itself to appoint members of the audit committee—including outsiders who were unknown to the majority on the board.
The fuzziness of boundaries and lack of defined authority call for an active nonprofit system of checks and balances. For a variety of reasons this is difficult for nonprofits to achieve:
- A typical nonprofit board member is often recruited from a pool of friends, relatives, and colleagues, and will serve, on a median average, for four to six years. This makes it difficult to achieve rigorous debate at meetings (why risk conflicts with board colleagues?). Directors also are not as eager to thoughtfully plan for change beyond the limits of their terms. Besides discussing day-to-day issues, the board needs to make sure that immediate gains do not hamper long-term sustainability.
- The culture of micromanagement is frequently a remnant from the early startup years when board members may have performed operational duties. In some boards it becomes embedded in the culture and continues to pervade the governmental environment, allowing the board and executive committee to involve themselves in areas that should be delegated to management.
- The executive team is a broad partnership of peers –board members, those appointed to the executive committee, and the CEO. The executive committee is legally responsible to act for the board between meetings–the board must ratify its decisions. But unchecked, the executive committee can assume dictatorial powers whose conclusions must be rubber-stamped by the board.
Mitigating Oversight Barriers: There is often little individual board members can do to change the course when the DNA has become embedded in the organization. The tradition of micromanagement, for example, is hard to reverse, especially when the culture is continually supported by a succession of like-minded board chairs and CEOs. No single board member can move these barriers given the brevity of the board terms. But there are a few initiatives that three or four directors, working in tandem, can take to move the organization into a high-performance category.
- Meetings: At the top of every meeting agenda there needs to be listed at least one policy or strategy topic. When the board discussion begins to wander, the chair should remind the group that they are encroaching on an area that is management’s responsibility. One board, I observed wasted an hour’s time because the chair had failed to intercept the conversation in this manner. Another board agreed to change its timing of a major development event, then spent valuable meeting time suggesting formats for the new event—clearly a management responsibility to develop.
- “New Age” Board Members: While millennial directors may be causing consternation in some legacy-bound nonprofit and business organizations, certain changes in nonprofits are noteworthy. Those board members in the 40- and- under age bracket need some targeted nurturing. I encountered a new young person who energized the board with her eagerness to try to innovative development approaches. She was subsequently appointed to the executive committee, deepening her view of the organization and primed her for board chair leadership.
Board members who understand the robust responsibilities of a 21st-century board need to accept responsibilities for mentoring these new age board people, despite their addictions to electronic devices.
- Experienced Board Members: Board members who have served on other high-performance boards have the advantage of being familiar with modern governance processes and are comfortable in supporting change. They are needed to help boards, executive committees, and CEOs to move beyond the comfortable bounds of the past. They will be difficult to recruit, but they are required ingredients for successful boards.
- NEW Projects: Boards and the CEO must be bold and try new approaches to meet client needs. For example, instead of going through a complete planning process for a new program, the board must ask management to complete a series of small experiments to test the program. When a series of results are positive, the nonprofit can work on a plan to implement the program.
Conclusion: Individual board members working alone will probably become frustrated in trying to contend with the three overview barriers discussed. But working with three or four colleagues, over time, on a tandem basis, they can make inroads on the barriers. Meetings can become more focused on policies/strategies, new age board members can become more quickly productive, experienced board members can become role models and new programs and other projects can be more quickly imitated via the use of small-scale experiments.