Avoiding the Potholes of Dysfunctional Boards
Dysfunctional boards? Let’s discuss.
Someone (several someones actually) have asked if private sector boards work “better” than nonprofit boards. While you might think that having everyone pulling in one direction—profit-making—would mean that a board would be easier to manage—I would point you to Exhibit A, Uber. Enough said.
In my experience, tax status—for-profit or nonprofit—is not itself a key driver of board functionality and effectiveness. Boards of both types of organizations can be functional and effective, or not. Just like they can be diverse, or not. The question is not whether or not boards are consistently, permanently functional, rather, the question is what action do you take when they become dysfunctional, and how swiftly do you take it. Because all boards, will, to one degree or another, at some point in time, hit a dysfunction pothole.
These potholes of dysfunction can take many forms. Some I see often include:
- The board member who strongly and loudly advocates a position based on opinion rather than facts and data.
- The board member who applies their experience in one industry sector into the nonprofit sector without nuancing that experience for the way the nonprofit sector operates.
- The board member who aggressively plays “devil’s advocate” when thoughtful questioning or problem solving would be more helpful.
- The board member or members who resist structuring an ambassadorship role—including fundraising—for themselves.
- The board member or members who are stuck in their historical view of the cause or mission in an evolving and dynamic space.
- The contrarian board member who wields such significant influence outside the room that others are reluctant to push back in meetings.
- “We already tried/did that” syndrome.
- Cliquey or tribal boards and committees.
- The board whose leadership is reluctant to address the dysfunction.
- The board whose bylaws do not include mechanisms for addressing the dysfunction, even when leadership is willing.
I’m sure you can add to that list.
When in Hole, Stop Digging
Our goal, though, is to climb out of the pothole and onward to finding solutions. One of the intrinsic challenges of nonprofit boards—and a key difference from private sector boards—is that nonprofit boards tend to be, culturally speaking, consensus-oriented and conflict-avoidant. That culture can mean that direct, open conversations with one another about how things are working with the board often don’t happen. As a result, dysfunctions remain unaddressed. The little potholes become big ones. One of the most helpful things to do, given this, is to put as much structure in place ahead of the inevitable dysfunction happening as you can, so you can lean on it when you hit the pothole.
Some structural best practices we recommend for avoiding the dysfunction potholes include:
- Term limits; publish terms and committee assignments so everyone knows where they—and the rest of the board—are in their cycles. Most importantly, adhere to them.
- Be sure the bylaws include the ability to fairly and appropriately remove board members off-cycle. This is not a first step toward resolving a conflict, of course, but it is important to have a way to deal with an intractable issue with finality.
- Create a director job description tailored to your organization that includes ambassadorship as well as governance as part of the role; within the context of ambassadorship, there should be clear expectations about fundraising, relationship building, advocacy, event attendance and any other outward-facing work.
- Recognize the potholes in your world—look at the list—do you have one of these situations in your boardroom? Is it something else? Is it causing distress within your board? Between your board and your leadership team? If yes, then it is actionable.
- Fix the pothole. Potholes—actual and those related to board dysfunction—can’t fix themselves. It may be challenging, and you may need to identify a resource to help galvanize a plan of action, but you must take steps to address dysfunction. That might mean figuring out how to elegantly interrupt bad behavior in a board meeting, or reorganizing committee assignments, or moving people off the board entirely. The solution will need to be specifically tailored to the problem.
The bottom line is that all boards, from time to time, will be brilliantly functional and then, perhaps, not so much. Our goal is to move them as quickly as possible from dysfunctional to fabulous and to add to what we learned in the process to make the world a better place for all of us.
Lisa A. Cohen is the CEO of Capital Motion, a consulting firm that works with charitable nonprofits and mission-driven organizations. Engagements focus on key drivers of success including strategic and business planning and board development services.