Lyn, a disgruntled staff member of a local nonprofit called her friend, Sam, a board member of the same nonprofit to criticize a new organizational procedure. At another nonprofit, George, the COO, met with the board chair to complain he was being treated unfairly. At still another organization, staffer Sally, emailed her friend and board member, Jane, to disparage the Director of Development.
“The board of this organization has only one employee: the Executive Director. So, I strongly suggest you bring this matter to Suzanne, our E.D. As board members, we do not get involved in internal operational issues.”
Ideally, board members and the E.D. clearly understand and execute their responsibilities.
Congrats to the organization whose board member made the above statement. This nonprofit has trained its board well and board members have embraced the practical application of this critical role. Sadly, this is not the norm for most organizations.
Often board members feel it is their duty to help things run smoothly at the charity where they serve. And staff members see board members as outside support systems. This can be a formula for insanity and disorganization.
People are usually drawn to nonprofits because of an emotional connection to the mission. Board members and staff members alike care deeply about the cause. If they can help make things better, they want to. But this commitment to the calling can actually backfire if they don’t follow proper procedures and best practices.
Often theory and practice are not in alignment.
As most of us know, the board’s role includes making sure the organization is being true to its mission, that it is financially stable, that its practices are in line with regulations, and that it is well known in the community.
On the other hand, the staff top executive is responsible to ensure effective and efficient operations. This includes oversight of all personnel, programs, and internal functions.
Practically speaking, this is never an exact science. Still, a basic understanding of good governance makes for a strong foundation. The most effective organizations work hard to ensure their practice is in line with best practices theory.
While it can be tempting for a board member to try to rectify staff complaints, the best board members will remember the refrain, “The board has only one employee: the Executive Director. Please discuss operational issues with her—this is outside my role as a board member.”
Friendships often muddy the waters of organizational practices.
Even though a board or staff member may know the difference between governance and operations, it can be hard if they are friends. A board member, acting as a caring friend, may listen to a staffer’s complaint without realizing s/he has stepped over a boundary. Sometimes a staff member will consciously take advantage of a friendship with a board member to short circuit the chain of command.
It takes internal personal discipline to overcome this destructive tendency. Refresher board training sessions also help to remind board members of their boundaries. If the board chair hears about a board member becoming engaged in operational issues, the effective chair will address it immediately.
There is one exception to this rule.
What if a staff member has a legitimate complaint against the chief executive? Each board should have clear policies to address such situations. It is usually discussed in the employee handbook—often part of the whistleblower policy. If a staff member has a genuine concern that the Executive Director is not following regulations or is engaging in dishonest or illegal activities, the organization’s policy usually directs the staffer to communicate the concern to the board chair. It is then the duty of the board chair to investigate.
However, the board chair must understand clearly the difference between a legitimate complaint and one that is simply an objection to a management decision. It is not illegal to be a bad boss. The organization cannot be liable just because the executive is not popular with the staff.
Hopefully, the board has a solid system in place to assess the executive’s performance on a regular basis. The director’s effectiveness and style can be addressed during the assessment. In fact, the best organizations solicit staff input as part of the annual chief executive review.
Practice the essential message.
On a regular basis, board members should be reminded of the refrain. The best place to see this best practice in operation is with your local Board of Supervisors. They are usually very clear about the theory and practice of this essential system. If followed, it will definitely strengthen a nonprofit’s sanity and sustainability.