Written by: Yolanda J. Gorman, Ph.D.
Senior Advisor to the Chancellor, UCLA
AABLI Lead Faculty
In my work with nonprofit boards, I often find that board members are extremely talented, skilled and passionate about the organizations they serve.
Why, then, do some governing boards have such bad reputations?
Management and government experts John and Miriam Carver offer this critique: “Board members are usually intelligent and experienced persons as individuals. Yet boards, as groups, are mediocre.” Peter Drucker, acclaimed as “the man who invented management,” insisted there is “one thing all boards have in common….They do not function.”
If boards are usually as ineffective as these management gurus contend, what does the future hold for nonprofits in these perilous times?
In my experience, there are three reasons that nonprofit boards fail:
The first reason is culture. Culture is comprised of shared assumptions, beliefs, and values that manifest themselves as tangible behaviors. These behaviors shape the personality of an organization or group such as a board. What begins as shared values evolves into shared assumptions. As these assumptions are reinforced, they become “solutions” to problems and concerns, and the more they are reinforced, the more likely they become reality.
And the more likely the culture of the board trickles down to the governed organization.
In the many years that I have served on and worked with boards, discussions about the culture have been rare. Most of the time, board members watch, observe and behave as they see others do. The problem with this approach is that bad habits can be reinforced.
For example, if a meeting is held at the end of the day when people are tired and want to get home, there is a rush to get through the agenda. It appears that getting home earlier is what matters, not the content of the meeting. New board members see that the desired value is ending the meeting early; focus on board work is not reinforced. Board members begin to talk less, ask fewer questions, and rely on staff for information and decisions. Ultimately, the problem becomes board members who are not involved, rather than the culture. But make no mistake: the root of the problem is culture.
A second reason for a board’s ineffectual performance is that board members do not grasp the importance of their responsibilities. Many board members understand their legal and fiduciary responsibilities, but may not appreciate why carrying out those responsibilities are so important. They are used to being asked and valued for their ability to help raise money for the organization. Indeed, it is important for board members to make personal contributions to the organization because this demonstrates a commitment to and investment in the organization, and inspires confidence in other potential donors and funders.
But it’s equally important that nonprofit boards represent the interests of the public, the government, donors and clients. They are there to ensure that the organization’s programs and services are of high quality. They make sure that funds are used for charitable purposes, and are spent as specified. And board members ensure that clients of an organization benefit from its ethical and effective work.
Board members have a responsibility to provide strategic support and expertise to the organization. Selected for their professional expertise, their access to resources, and their professional networks, they play critical roles in advancing the mission of the organization. Fundraising is not the sole purpose of their board service. I have too often observed what happens when boards raise money for an organization but fail to see that providing strategic guidance is organic to their roles as good governors. Without that insight, the organizations in their care struggle to stay on mission. Fundamentals, such as keeping top of mind the interests of key stakeholders, are missed.
The third reason nonprofit boards miss the boat is the lack of appropriate structures and systems to support the work. For the purposes of board effectiveness, systems include physical structure, information flow, decision-making processes, values, norms, rules that interrelate and influence behavior. When board performance founders, it is most likely due to a failure in the system, not to a personal failure.
Boards require agreed upon expectations, a clear process for orienting new board members to those expectations, and policies that provide clarity about how to implement expectations. Effective board structures include an orderly flow of work where tasks are accomplished through committees. The board as a whole is properly used for making decisions at the end of the committee process. Communication among board members should be free flowing, with a focus on continuous improvement of the board’s function and structure. It is amazing that, as the work of staff and board committees proceeds, so many boards are unaware of their most powerful tool – the ability to demand that tough questions be answered with data.
Some Parting Thoughts on Best Practices
Many boards already have put in place some or all of the practices I recommend below, but constant assessment and attention to them are critical if a board expects to function at its highest level.
- Meeting attendance. Board members must make It a priority to attend all board meetings.
- Term limits. Regular turnover encourages directors to pay attention to the composition of the board, helps avoid stagnation and offers opportunities to expand the board’s circle of contacts and influence.
- Strategic recruitment. Determine board composition based on the organization’s priorities.
- Evaluation. Evaluate board performance (self-assessment) every two years.
- Onboarding and orientation. Formalize a process for bringing new members online and orienting them to the positive culture of the board.
- Board job descriptions. Develop written descriptions outlining the responsibilities of the board, individual members, and the board’s committees.
- Personal giving. Every board member should make a meaningful personal contribution, according to his or her means.
Improving board performance requires constant attention. Begin with identifying the things that need to change. Develop clear definitions and put them in writing. Be persistent and objective. Create structures that recognize and reward desired performance. These steps will help improve our board experience and enhance the perception of nonprofit boards.
Dr. Gorman has more than 25 years of experience as a successful organizational consultant specializing in nonprofit management. She has assisted nonprofit organizations with infrastructure and resource development, and has provided program and strategic planning, research and evaluation, board training and organizational development services.
Dr. Gorman is the lead faculty for AABLI’s Board Leadership Program (BLP) and conducts seminars and training sessions for the boards of local and national organizations, foundations, and academic institutions. She is the author of several articles and papers on organizational capacity building, strategic planning and business management.
This blog is not written by aabli.org or The African American Board Leadership Institute. The author is solely responsible for the content.