7 Steps to Avoid a Bobblehead Board!
Don't have a bobblehead board.
Yes, those amusing dolls with the bobbing, oversized heads that always look like they're agreeing with you. We are all familiar with them, but I had never heard the term "bobblehead board" before talking to a colleague.
I was visiting with a foundation leader, and she mentioned the saga of a local nonprofit that over the last few years experienced mounting financial, leadership and dysfunctional culture problems — culminating in the abrupt departure of the CEO amid many questions.
The foundation leader, like many in the community, saw the signs — a board that was not engaged on a deep level and certainly not asking the tough questions it needed to as a public steward. An attempt to present an "all is great" image was causing even more harm to the organization's rebound and credibility.
"I don't want a board who doesn't ask questions and challenge me," the foundation leader shared. I was surprised because she has a stellar reputation for her ethics.
"I am concerned about creating a board who might aimlessly agree with one of my successors, who may not share my ethical perspective," she added.
A strong board is an essential ingredient in an organization fulfilling its fundraising potential and its public trust. Here are some steps to avoid a bobblehead board:
- Have an annual board orientation for all board members and ongoing presentations during the year on ethics and the board's fiduciary responsibility.
- Consider engaging an outside source — a local academic program on nonprofits, local nonprofit resource center or consultant for this training, or especially a session with your executive committee focused on the board-CEO relationship.
- Have a strong partnership, but take steps to avoid a too cozy relationship with the CEO — no matter how strong/effective or ethical he or she may be — i.e., the feeling that any CEO or senior staff is irreplaceable. We can all be replaced with someone even more effective!
- Ensure that board members — and senior staff of the organization — sign a conflict of interest policy.
- Be very transparent with the organization's finances, including CEO compensation and use of consultants.
- Ensure that all board members make leadership gifts. Where they make an investment, they are even more concerned with the organization's well-being.
- Ensure that your board's senior leadership is focused. Board members can only serve on so many boards and be effective. This is heightened when in a position of board leadership. It is a conflict of interest, for example, in most cases to serve as the chair of two local nonprofits at the same time. You can't appropriately advocate for board members and donors for both organizations.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.