Why bother with a Board?
In an earlier blog post Abolish the nonprofit Board? What do you think? I told the story of a social entrepreneur who, in starting a new public charity, decided to forgo standard wisdom and ditched his board.
He couldn’t really eliminate the board entirely — most states require board members in order to have a nonprofit corporation. To meet the requirement, he invited two friends to make up a three person board, including himself.
Why did he do this? Because he found as CEO of a previous nonprofit that the board was an incredible time sink for his attention. And that the board seemed satisfied with the status quo (quality programs delivered to a small cohort of needy kids) rather than demanding bolder action to meet what was such a bigger need.
Many of you commented, sympathizing with his plight yet worrying both about the long-term sustainability of the organization as well as the oversight to donors.
I promised I’d weigh in after giving you an opportunity to comment.
I agree with him on two accounts:
- Boards can be a real drag on Executive Director time.
- Boards are often timid and unclear on what value they create.
And where I disagree:
- Boards protect the public’s interests
- Nonprofit ownership belongs in the community, not one person.
Let me explain.
First, where we agree:
Too many boards are a big time sink for their Executive Directors.
Executive Directors routinely say that they spend countless hours “managing” the board. This includes creating the agenda for monthly board meetings, making sure board materials are distributed in advance of the meeting, managing the minutes, preparing reports, coaching board leadership, filling in for lack of board leadership, recruiting new board members, etc. etc.
Ask your CEO how much time they spend on your board.
Yet, the work I just described has to be done. I fault the board chair for abdicating his or her management responsibilities to lead the formation of meeting agendas and to hold committee chairs and other officers accountable for their assigned tasks.
Most nonprofits lack dedicated administrative support for their board. But would you rather have your top staff member as your clerk or your peer and staff leader? Boards not only need to be self-managing, but also smart about the use of web tools and other technology that can dramatically reduce time and expenses.
And, if your board really wants to reduce the staff time to board tending, cut back the number of board meetings you have. If you’ve created a well-led and well-run organization and good monitoring practices, you shouldn’t notice a difference.
Boards are too timid and don’t know how they really add value to their organizations.
Most boards are at sea in what they should be doing beyond their fiduciary roles. An Executive Director I know longed for “a big, bold, innovative thinking board.”
Like this CEO, I see too few boards framing the next BIG questions. Questions like “why are we content with delivering quality programs to a few hundred when there are thousands more who need our help? What would it take to actually solve the need? Who would be our partners?” In their book Governance as Leadership, Richard Chait et al call this “generative leadership.”
In my humble opinion, I think too many boards are afraid to ask the BIG questions because they are fearful of what the answers might mean in terms of their own commitment. We need more passionate advocates creating bold and fearless (though not reckless) boards.
Where I think he’s wrong:
Boards protect the public’s interest.
While execution is often imperfect, the board model should remind everyone that the continued privileges of the entire nonprofit sector depends on the faith of the public that organizations will deliver both a public benefit and wisely steward the gifts and privileges society allows.
Just about every founding CEO believes that he or she will always be honest and only act in the best interests of their organization and their constituents. Unfortunately, the newspapers provide us with too many cases of Executive Directors gone awry. And yes, while in those cases board members have either been lazy or complicit, who knows how many more cases of self-dealing might arise if we didn’t have any boards at all?
Nonprofit ownership belongs with the community, not one person.
I happen to take seriously the legal and moral foundation that nonprofit entities are not the property of any one individual, but are truly of the community. This is the toughest challenge for entrepreneurial individual founders to ask themselves. While “built to last” may not be a realistic goal for every organization in these dynamic times, built to last is more likely to come about when the weight of ownership, the responsibility for the mission, resides in a bigger pool of people than just the founder. And I do regularly meet founders who, when they hit a turn in the road — whether that’s a change in their funding model or a personal desire to do something else — lament that they never built an ownership board from the start.
Some may want to leave them behind, but for me, I’ll take the board for now.
P.S. I’d love to hear more stories from founders. Or from boards that have creatively handled some of these challenges.