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:

  1. Boards can be a real drag on Executive Director time.
  2. Boards are often timid and unclear on what value they create.

And where I disagree:

  1. Boards protect the public’s interests
  2. 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.

20 responses to Why bother with a Board?

  1. Diana Kern

    I have been following this chain of posts. I was waiting to see how you would reply. I am not a founder, but I have been serving on nonprofit boards for years and in my job I work with over 50 boards a year in southeast Michigan. I have talked with many Executive Directors/CEO’s that would love to dump their boards. “Diana, they don’t provide any real value, they don’t fundraise, they don’t provide vision, they aren’t good ambassadors for the mission, and I spend more time managing than I do me staff,” they would say to me.

    However,like you, I will keep the board for now, but I believe strongly that the role of Board Chair is critical to high-performing nonprofit boards. I can point to poor board chair performance over and over again when I talk with EDs/CEOs that are frustrated. Likewise, when I work with a good Board Chair the value of the board is evident.

    The entire nonprofit industry needs to concentrate on supporting, educating, and training Board Chairs. As goes the Board Chair, so goes the board.

    Love your site!

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I agree with you 100%. I’ve seen strong boards unravel in the hands of a poor Board Chair. I’ve seen excellent Executive Directors driven out of organizations by Board Chairs who think they are the chief decision-makers and CEOs. Or frustrated directors who could be excellent change makers but can’t get enough traction to bypass the chair.

      Overall, I think we pay scant attention in this sector to grooming highly effective board leadership. I’ve been thinking a lot about a new model of board development in which nonprofit support organizations, community foundations and others would create a large roster of highly trained chairs, treasurers, secretaries and governance committee chairs that could be available to organizations for turn around terms of service in which the model optimal leadership and train and coach successors. I’ve even considered developing a new consulting offering where I serve as coach for the board chair — a team approach if you will.

      What experience have you had getting board leadership to attend trainings specifically for them?

      P.S. Thank you.

  2. Bunnie Riedel

    Excellent food for thought! I cannot stress enough the need for board training and board accountability. So many people get on a board and they do not understand their roles or the expectations of the organization. I think board training and development is one of the most important things to do, but rarely is done and that is a disservice to the executive and the board.

  3. KKB

    Interesting take – imagine the power if that CEO took a little more time and recruited a board that would embrace and drive his bold vision in the first place. Ownership board, for sure!

  4. Diana Kern

    I love your idea about training specific skills that will enhance the volunteer leadership for nonprofits. We have a workshop called Board Chair 101. I wish I could say it had overwhelming attendance, but alas, it usually draws people that really care about the job they are doing and not the ones that really need it! 🙂

    I have talked with many local foundations, (and in Michigan we have some excellent foundations), about requiring nonprofits they fund to go through board assessments and training so the funding agent can feel confident the Board knows their roles and responsibilities and are good stewards for donors. However, most foundations say they do not want to direct nonprofits/boards on internal capacity building.

    We do however, train nearly 600 people a year in southeast Michigan how to serve on boards correctly through public workshops. But I find getting the entire board together to focus on their specific life-cycle stage and issues is the most powerful. More boards have reached out this year than ever before. I think this is due to the high stress level that most board members feel today.

    I agree with KKB about finding a key group of board members that will help drive your vision!

  5. Betsy Baker

    Gayle, wow, you have really gotten some strong opinions on this topic. I love such a lively discussion. I’m just looking forward to seeing what you come up with next!

  6. Greg McRay, EA

    Great topic. Definitely provocative stuff. I have written a number of articles on both good board governance and what I call “Founder’s Syndrome” (a bad thing!). This is a subject that will not be going away anytime soon.

  7. Gayle Gifford Post Author

    Thank you all for your comments. I wish I had found out about it earlier, but the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation just closed an online survey for their upcoming study Daring To Lead 2010 asking Executive Directors to comment on their relationship with their Boards. http://tinyurl.com/2b3hgq8

  8. Alexandra Peters

    This founder (who has a bad case of Founder’s Disease: It’s All About Me) goes right along with that. Here he has the opportunity to go out and find just the people who could help him, advise him, question his actions, push him further, but he has set it up so that his is the only voice. And if he doesn’t vote, then there are two voting members on his board? I’ve recently seen two different cases of founder EDs ousted because they had long since forgotten that it wasn’t just their show. Not pretty.

    Yes, it’s hard for nonprofits, and especially EDs, to deal with boards. But boards are part time volunteers who, more often than not, are bombarded by information that is difficult to wade through, subjected to the tedium and rules of board meetings, and told over and over again that what they’re needed for is their contacts and money. Wouldn’t it be great if nonprofits, rather than talking about how to engage the board, really were able to allow their boards to govern (and that means, uncomfortably for the Ed, questioning.) Wouldn’t it be great if we looked for leaders and not just donors? Wouldn’t it be great if we saw them as part of the organization, and not some other class (rich know it alls who don’t do much) who aren’t part of the life of the organization?

    Thanks for this provocative conversation, Gayle!

  9. Sherry Truhlar

    I am really enjoying this discussion. It runs closely to the idea of basic volunteer recruitment – tell them what you need. A step before training would be refining the recruitment process so a board member knows what is going to be expected of him/her. That Exec Dir might be the “big, bold innovative thinking” board if that was set as the expectation.

    Thanks for leading the discussion.

  10. Brian Saber

    I hear the pain, as they say, and there were times when I wished boards would just go away. But what I really came to wish for was a sea change in the concept of board membership. Here’s what I’d like to see and why.

    1) Everyone who wants to serve on a board will choose exactly ONE board to be on.

    2) He or she will be expected to give 75% of all his or her charitable contributions to that board.

    3) All boards will be decreased in size to 10 or fewer members.

    If this happens, we will have:

    *boards fully populated with people who are making a tremendous investment and have a true sense of ownership.
    *boards that overall are giving more and therefore making a more significant impact in their organizations’ bottom lines.
    *fewer volunteers to manage and cultivate – and every one of those relationships will be worthwhile to cultivate.
    *boards that are more limber and less prone to inertia.
    *less staff cost given all the time and effort it currently takes to manage a board.

    Obviously it’s a pipe dream that could only happen over generations or by law – but perhaps we can at least think along these lines and try to move our individual organizations somewhat in that direction.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I’m on board with the one (or two) boards to serve on but not on the other two points. I do think that the organization on whose board one serves should rate at the top of its charitable giving list, but many of us have other causes we also want to support that are equally valid but perhaps not in line with board service. For example, I’m a fan of human rights and civil liberties but I don’t think I’d be the right person for the national or international boards of organizations in those categories. Should that diminish my giving to those causes vs the local charter school on whose board I sit?

      I’m wondering in the small size category of fewer than 10 members, how you would feel about a really small vote making significant changes? I could imagine in the 10 or fewer member board a quorum of half leading to a majority of only three voting a significant change. That would make me nervous and wouldn’t be a lot different from my Founder who only wanted 3 people on his board.

  11. Brian Saber


    I hear your point about your multiple passions, and for some that 75% figure could never be tenable. But if the gift to the board(s) one serves on isn’t very significant to that person it does – in my experience – diminish the overall commitment and sense of investment that person has.

    As for voting – perhaps with smaller boards the by-laws need to be amended so that some larger number or percentage is needed to effect change. And it could be that in consideration of fiduciary duty and oversight that 10 just is too small. My general point would be that these boards of 25 to 30 – or more – are very hard to manage and cultivate correctly.


  12. Mamie Hatfield

    Great topic. Definitely provocative stuff. I have written a number of articles on both good board governance and what I call “Founder’s Syndrome” (a bad thing!). This is a subject that will not be going away anytime soon.

  13. Helen Tjader

    Gayle – Great topic. Agree that a board with a couple of friends is too small for strong fiduciary controls or management. One thing not mentioned is that board term limits are a useful tool for rotating and refreshing board members. The difference in time and leadership commitment between the duties of a typical board chair and a typical board member is substantial. Ideally, a board should be filled with members who would be capable of rising to the chair’s role. Often boards get filled up without enough potential chairs.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Helen, Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts… especially worth hearing from a past board chair that exemplifies the best of being a chair. What do you think about Lynn’s idea of developing mentors for board chairs? I’ve even thought in our own practice that we could offer a consulting service to be a mentor to a board chair – though I do think that including the successor would be important. My work with governing committees is similar, but not exactly the same as working one on one with the board chair.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      You make a good point Helen about making sure that there are individuals on the board who can grow into the chair’s role. Boards must be very intentional about this, again, where a strong governing committee can make a real difference.

  14. Lynn Nee

    I love this discussion. Board development is one of my interests and as both a current board member and a former executive director I can see both the desire to eliminate the board as well as the need to keep and develop a successful one. I like the idea of having a pool of trained individuals who can step onto boards when help is needed but even before that what about the possibility of having board chair “mentors” who could be available for consultation, maybe utilizing technology to spread their abilities across a state like Michigan.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I’m so interested that you raised the idea of board chair mentors. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about. With board chairs so critical to both the functioning of the board and with the ability to wreck great harm in CEO-Board relations, mentors to board chairs could be transformational… or at least I think so. And I’d bet that we’d find more people willing to take on the chairs job if they didn’t feel as if it would be so overwhelming.

  15. Dan Cotter

    You are spot on with both agreements and disagreements. Boards can be very ineffective and create hurdles while not solving any problems. But they also are when effective crucial to the long-term success of the organization. Chair leadership is fundamental. Also engagement in general. I know of non-profits with very large boards that are not active. They hold very few meetings, do not fundraise, do not ask the right questions, etc.

    I also agree term limits and a staggered board are great ideas. Boards that remain the same become insular and at some point, in my opinion, fail to keep the “eye on the prize” of doing what is best for the public and the issue for which the organization was formed.

    Great topic and discussion!


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