Nonprofit Boards: Where Are You?
This column will focus on identifying three possible solutions that nonprofit executives could utilize to increase their support and responsiveness by the board to the executive and the nonprofit organization. One principle hypothesis frames this subject. For executives who are wholly dissatisfied with the support they receive from their board, there are many risks in communicating their dissatisfaction including no response and negative responses.
I am likely dating myself with introducing the television comedy, “Car 54, Where Are You?” While on the surface, this show’s title has little to do with nonprofit boards or executives. But if I substitute “Car 54” for “nonprofit boards,” I would not be too distant from what nonprofit executives regularly ask: Where are their boards? And yes, in these exacerbated times of stress and confusion, the answer to this question is frequently: “Not supporting me or the organization.”
As a consultant, here is a list of complaints I regularly hear from nonprofit executives about their boards (note that my primary clients are boards, not executives):
- Absenteeism rates at scheduled meetings are high.
- Members rarely check in between scheduled meetings.
- Substantive discussions at meetings are rare.
- Members do not come prepared for meetings (e.g. not reading reports that have been sent in advance or not attending committee meetings).
- Committee meetings are not productive.
- Members are unwilling to give or fundraise and/or be trained to fundraise.
I am not going to say that all these complaints are fair and/or accurate, nor are these applicable to every organization. For the supersized organizations (those with annual budgets greater than $25 million) in particular, board members do attend meetings, are prepared, use committees effectively and efficiently, and give or fundraise (if established as board policy and practice). Typically during the recruitment process of these organizations, board members are informed of expectations; are fully supported by their volunteer and paid leadership with frequent and appropriate information; and operate efficient and effective meetings.
But for many other nonprofits, especially those on a smaller scale, meeting participation, along with a host of other elements, contribute to a board not completely engaging. The reasons, beginning with “I really didn’t understand this was my role,” or I don’t have enough support,” are typical.
At this juncture and based on my own experience, I want to acknowledge that there are a good number of executives who do not desire a board for any other purpose than legal compliance. These executives consider board involvement intrusive, unconstructive and unnecessary. For this group, distance is fine, and although they are not my audience, I might suggest that these boards may want to go into multiple executive sessions to fully understand what their roles might be.
But for the remaining executives that seek meaningful and constructive board engagement, here are three possible starting points.
Recognizing that boards are relational and transactional in their work, and that relationships strengthen the ability to create sound transactions (aka decisions), I pose that it is imperative for executives who do desire strong support from their boards to spend relationship-building time at least once a quarter with each board member.
I would accelerate the frequency of connecting for officers, as well as the board chair. Relationship-building time could mean a scheduled phone call or even a meal to share personal and professional knowledge of each other, particularly each other’s respective strengths and priorities.
360 Board Performance Review
Based on board mutually-agreed upon goals, board members, as guided by their governance committee should conduct an annual performance review. This review could be as simple as an executive session where each member precedes with a personal assessment. Then the whole board reviews yearly performance and the progress on their individual and collective role. The session could conclude with a commitment to one or two personal areas for growth and annual board goals.
But wait, there is more! Provide the executive the opportunity to participate in the assessment. The survey instrument would then become one more tool to be reviewed by the board during their executive session.
Learning from the executive will add a dimension and help clarify expectations not otherwise included. Equally important, consciousness of the role and relationship with the executive, made more concrete by the executive during relationship-building activities, will make the whole exercise more meaningful for both.
Assessment tools are available online. One particularly strong tool by Yvonne Harris and Vic Murray is research-based and available here.
360 Executive Performance Review
The annual executive performance review is the opportunity for a board and executive to examine performance. Done inclusively, providing the executive the opportunity to share their own experience and expectations provides a learning and communication opportunity not otherwise generally available. Executive performance reviews can also be found online. Blue Avocado offers one here.
In summary, boards can be supportive of their executives, and vice versa, to ensure there is accountability and responsibility. And like the joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb, the answer is only one, but the bulb has to want to change.
Editor's Note: This Leading the Board column was originally published in the 2020 May/June print issue of NonProfit PRO. You can view the full article here.