Keep Your Nonprofit Board Out of the Weeds

by | Jan 14, 2020 | Announcements

Recently I have encountered several nonprofit boards meddling in their organization’s operations rather than using their energies for the real job of governance and building relationships with donors.

Keep Your Nonprofit Board Out of the Weeds

Some of these boards don’t seem to realize they are neglecting their fiduciary duty by digging around in the weeds. Others don’t seem to care, choosing instead to spend their time doing what they enjoy most—getting involved in operations.

>>Boards that micromanage undermine the organization’s integrity.

This type of board wants to be involved in hiring and firing decisions, equipment purchases, staff salaries, and job descriptions. These board members often contact staff members directly rather than going through the chief executive.

This is a formula for the disintegration of the organization from the inside out. Staff members become confused about who they actually report to and even become afraid to use their own judgment in their work.

When this happens, the board chair should meet with the chief executive to plan a strategy to get the board on the right track. However, sometimes the board chair is the worst offender. If this is the case, the chief executive has no choice but to leave, allow the board to run the show, or discuss it with the board governance committee.

If the board is spending its time and energy digging around in the weeds, they are neglecting their primary function of governance. If the board does not govern, the organization flounders. For optimum performance, an organization’s chief executive and the board must work together as a team, each with its own area of responsibility.

>>Why boards meddle in operations.

Sometimes a board’s micromanaging starts with one rogue board member who rallies others to their cause. Other times meddling starts because of a lack of confidence in the chief executive’s competency. If this is the case, the board is obliged to address performance issues with the chief executive and work to create a plan for improvement. Some boards choose to hire an executive coach to work with the leader.

Lack of training can also be the cause of board intervention in day-to-day decisions. Being proactive about providing the entire board with basic training on their roles and responsibilities can keep them focused on appropriate matters. The board chair, the board governance committee, and the chief executive can work together to ensure this essential training occurs on a regular basis.

Often board members will begin to delve into operational issues because they feel most comfortable there, especially if they are managers in their day job. Also, it can be more interesting to get involved in the mission rather than working on policies. The daily work of many nonprofits can feel much more rewarding than bona fide board work.

Of course, for very small organizations without sufficient staff, the board may be required to perform duties typically reserved for employees. However, even in this instance, board members should be very clear about which hat they are wearing: governance or operations.

>>Boards that govern are more effective than those that meddle.

Of course, I’ve also witnessed many nonprofit boards fulfilling their responsibilities with excellence and clarity. These boards understand that they need to focus on the big picture: governance, oversight and support of the chief executive, building relationships for community support and donor investment, and organizing themselves for optimum effectiveness.

These boards typically form committees for such things as finance, fund development, and advocacy. Committees do the work and report back to the board. They do not get involved with personnel issues, except with regard to the chief executive. They refrain from asking for detailed operational reports. They trust their one employee, the chief executive, to make the tactical decisions.

As long as the chief executive operates within the board approved operational budget, the board does not involve itself in spending decisions. When the chief executive makes an unpopular personnel decision and a staff member contacts a board member about it, the board member politely instructs the staff member to discuss the matter with the chief executive.

When a board focuses on governance and relationship building while the chief executive devotes time and energy to operations, the organization can achieve optimum performance. Of course, the board and chief executive must also work closely together as partners, trusting each other and communicating consistently.