Boards as conservators. Good or bad?

With the extremely poor financial condition that states are experiencing and the coming wave of dramatic cutbacks in state and local funding of services delivered through nonprofits (one colleague noted close to 15 nonprofits on the financial brink in her Florida community), one would think that boards would crave new thinking around program delivery, organizational structure, partnership or cost reduction.

But a conversation yesterday brought back to me a dynamic that I’ve been observing for many years: the role of boards as conservators.

A little background.

Yesterday I made my bi-annual trek to life portfolio company New Directions to discuss life in the nonprofit sector with their clients. New Directions clients are accomplished people in business or the professions who are designing the next stage of their life journeys.

My portion of the conversation was “The rewarding and confounding world of the nonprofit sector,” which is partly nonprofit 101 and partly DEEP THOUGHTS.

A fellow “interpreter of the sector” was the Executive Director of a capacity building (smallish, $500K budget) nonprofit. He mentioned that for the last two years he had been a co-executive director, a leadership team that resulted from a merger. He mentioned that the other ED was winding up his term and he would soon be the sole ED. When I asked how the co-directorship worked for him, he shared he really liked the arrangement, but his Board just wasn’t comfortable with the shared leadership model.

Boards as Conservators

At first a bit surprised by this tale, it reminded me that many boards are naturally suited to their role as conservators.

Here I’m using conservator in its definition as someone who conserves or keeps safe. Like a custodian, guardian, or protector.

The words we use to describe board duties — like prudent, loyalty, care, fiduciary — imply moderation and caution. Another word I might use would be  “conservative.”

In my experience, most Boards of Directors are loathe, and rightfully so, to take big risks. In their conservator role, boards put the breaks on reckless spending. Because boards usually reflect the mindset of the communities they serve, they often restrain choices, decisions or actions that could put their organization ideologically too far in front of the constituencies and communities they serve. I’ve seen boards wisely put the kabosh on ill-conceived public policy actions that could threaten public good will.

When conservator = ill-conceived road block

Too frequently, however, the conservator role of boards holds back innovation.

Staff often find themselves far ahead of their part time leadership volunteers when it comes to mission implementation. As the professionals, they interact with their peers and seek out new research and best practices. They are immersed every day in the work, thinking what comes next, how can I do this better (or at least we hope they are).

But their board members aren’t. They have other lives, other jobs, other concerns that take precedence. Few, if any, are traveling in the same professional spaces. They only know what is, and may have no clue about what might be and why that is important. So when staff bring forward these big new concepts, it takes time for board members to digest them.

Many years ago I was Director of Development and Communications at Plan International USA. During my tenure, we launched a soul searching strategic planning process. For a number of reasons that included maintaining our standing among our peers and funders, a commitment to fostering better international understanding, and our need to deepen the global understanding and thus the retention of our donors, staff were interested in expanding our fledgling development education programming and making it an important, though always small, part of our program mix.

A small cadre of academic board members were extremely resistant to the idea that we could educate donors through such a populist (for lack of a better word) approach to development education. After many frustrating conversations, the Board chose to delete development education from the strategic plan, sending it back to committee for discussion and reconsideration at a later date. Needless to say, staff were extremely frustrated (angry?). Ultimately, after many more months of give and take, we finally found a compromise that enabled us to proceed forward, albeit in very tiny steps. (Outcome: Our new, grant-funded development education program was hugely successful and achieved the strategic objectives that underpinned our initial reasoning).

Now, more than ever, we need our boards to look forward with vision, radical rethinking, insatiable curiosity, and the judgment to know when conservatism is called for and when disruption is essential.

While more organizations are ripening to the idea of doing business somewhat differently, I’m still finding too many boards oblivious at best and resistant at worst to newer ideas — like  joint ventures with other nonprofits. While due caution is needed for big changes like mergers or subsidiary relationships, others –like outsourcing financial management or the case I described above of co-directors — seem to be resisted for no apparent reason.

Unfortunately, these dynamic and perilous times require us to reconsider all historic assumptions and brutally question every aspect of the way we do business. Now, more than ever, we need to maximize the energy and resources that go into serving our communities and constituents. We can no longer assume that something that worked well enough in the past has any hope of surviving the future.

I don’t know if this is possible. Do you?

6 responses to Boards as conservators. Good or bad?

  1. Alice Korngold

    Gayle, I completely agree with you. I see this phenomenon very often. The challenge is that nonprofit boards are comprised of members from outside the field of the nonprofit so they don’t have the expertise to be comfortable with new approaches and change. That’s why it helps a great deal to have smaller boards of highly engaged people, with at least a few who are expert in the field, a few who are expert strategists, and board agendas that are highly focused on mission, vision, and strategy. It’s also important to have dynamic turnover on the board for fresh thinking, good board education including site visits, and a superb board chair. It also helps to have an outside facilitator to help usher the change process. No doubt, this is tough, it’s hard on the best nonprofit CEOs, and it’s an impediment to progress in the nonprofit sector.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Thank you for your thoughtful post. I’m a bit curious to hear more about how you see the relationship between size and turnover. Can smaller boards be more entrenched with less room for a critical mass of outside the norm thinkers? Could turnover actually reduce comprehension and understanding among board members that has been painfully built over the years… requiring staff to continuously start anew? Questions I ponder always in thinking about boards.

  2. Alice Korngold

    Gayle, I 100% agree with your concerns/points! So it’s a matter of balance. I’ve been reading your past blogposts and feel like we are kindred spirits. Love your recommendations, reflections, etc. Re: “outside the norm thinkers,” I am actually passionate about this. Please excuse my shamelessly mentioning one of my posts, but I think it will resonate with you on this point:

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      By all means, shamelessly contribute more thoughtfulness! I agree completely with your article about the value and richness of diverse perspectives.
      It’s always a pleasure for me to find more kindred spirits… and an ongoing challenge to myself to listen for truth in the expressions of some who aren’t.

  3. Lori L. Jacobwith

    Gayle, great read!

    Your statement: “Now, more than ever, we need our boards to look forward with vision, radical rethinking, insatiable curiosity, and the judgment to know when conservatism is called for and when disruption is essential” I am in total agreement with this.

    AND I believe it is our responsibility as staff or staff support (coaches & consultants) to help the board see the path to and feel comfortable about innovation. We can do this in a variety of ways: Sharing other examples of innovation that work, bringing in or sending the board to visit with board members of innovative organizations and to create discussion times OTHER than the board meeting when deeper conversation can unpack fears and allow for a culture shift.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Thank you so much for your wonderful comments.

      I completely agree with your approach. Really great advice to help us begin to reshape our board thinking — advice that not only helps us build the visioning and radical rethinking we need, but also makes for a much more fulfilling and energizing board experience.


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