Do You Wish Your Board Was Better?

Diverse people in a conference room to illustrate a board of directors

By Molly Penn

Just last week, I heard complaints from two CEOs or Executive Directors who wish their board was somehow “better.”  In one case, the board is overreaching and micromanaging.  In the other, the board is too disengaged.  These are common complaints that represent opposite ends of the spectrum, but share similar root causes.

In most organizations, there is a new board Chair or President every 3-6 years.  Within that time, there is also typically some turnover in which some board members leave and new ones join.  Given a team that is constantly changing in both composition and leadership it is remarkable how little time we spend tending to building the right culture from the start.  Especially when you factor in that boards are like Congress – we need their cooperation and alignment to get things done!  Too often though, staff leaders throw up their hands when faced with a board that is behaving like our Congress is right now.  Why is that?

Nonprofits boards are complex and confusing bodies of people.  There are really only 3 legal duties of a board: the duty of Obedience (fidelity to the mission), Care (proper stewardship of the resources) and Loyalty (to put the organization’s interests above their own when acting as a board member).  Add to that one other crystal clear responsibility – that of hiring (and/or firing) the staff leader, the CEO or Executive Director.  Everything else we “expect” board members to do is just based in best practice – it’s not a rule, it’s an expectation.

In the situations where a CEO or ED is experiencing dysfunction with the board, it is because no one has onboarded their board members and communicated what is expected of them.  For example, because the part of the board’s job is hiring and managing the performance of the Executive Director, most board members think they (individually and collectively) are the boss of the Executive Director.  That is not really the case.  The board manages the ED’s performance, but the board doesn’t really know the job they are managing – in most cases board members are not nonprofit experts, yet we ask them to manage the performance of the key organizational leader.  Expecting that they are, therefore, that person’s “boss” is a gross oversimplification of the power dynamics.  In the best cases we’ve seen, the board and ED are thought partners.  They each respect the other’s expertise and they collaborate in providing direction to the organization.  But this is rare, and it requires the communication of that expectation from the outset.

My Board is Micromanaging!

If your board is overreaching and micromanaging there could be a couple of reasons for this.  The most common one is that individual members believe they have “authority.”  The board is a body and it is meant to function as a body.  No individual (unless they hold an officer role like Chair or President) has the authority to speak for the board.  Nor do they have the authority to manage and direct the actions of staff.  But if no one communicated that, it’s understandable that they would be confused.  Individual members overstepping their authority can also be the sign of ineffective board leadership – we appoint people to the Chair or President role on the board (the Speaker role, using the Congress metaphor), but we don’t sit down with them to talk about the skills they need to serve in that role.  So they just think they are the “leader” of the board, without that being clearly defined.  Again, taking that extra time to proactively communicate the expectations of that role and build a strong partnership will go a long way to building an effective board Chair.

My Board Doesn’t Fundraise!

This is a big one – and one we hear quite often.  By and large, the least desirable aspect of being a board member is fund raising (in fact, we have a workshop on fund raising for boards called “Please Don’t Make Me Fundraise!”). We dislike it so much that no one talks about it.  We may talk about the “give or get” expectation, but we don’t get specific about what role they want to play in fundraising, and we don’t support them in building that skill.  We just “expect” that they will fundraise.  In fact, very few board members actually feel comfortable and able to fundraise (to ask people for money).  But again, that is an oversimplification of this expected board role.  There are many roles board members can play in fundraising, and the most important thing is to talk with them about what role they want to play.  The beginning step of fundraising is relationship building – that’s an easy role for all board members to play, yet few do it because they’re afraid you’re going to ask them to ask for money!  Again, having a conversation with each board member to find the best role they can play in the fundraising process is key to making your board feel effective, engaged and appreciated.

My Board is Disengaged!

The pendulum can sometimes swing the other way, where the board shows up for meetings (sometimes), works on committees (sometimes), but remains relatively uninformed about the mission and kind of phones in their participation.  Or, the level of participation is uneven, where some board members lean in, while others lean back, creating the overall impression of an disengaged board.  This can show up for a couple of reasons.  One, the ED could be recovering from a micromanaging board, so their tendency is to share as little as possible with the board.  Another might be the way meetings are conducted (see below).  Another (and the most common) is a board structure that is too focused on the oversight function (the committees tend to be governance, finance/audit and fundraising).  That’s not why people joined your board.  They joined your board because they care about the mission, but for one reason or another, the mission is no where to be found in the board room!  Board engagement is a participatory sport – we all have to lean into proactively curating opportunities to engage your board more deeply with the mission (the reason they joined).  Ask them to volunteer to help run client-facing events.  Tell client stories as part of each board meeting.  Create a program or mission committee, that works closely with program staff.  We need to be constantly feeding their engagement or we run the risk that their role becomes purely performative vs. substantive.  Again, it comes down to individual communication and relationship building with your board members so you understand what they care about and you connect them to that aspect of your organization’s mission.

Building A Strong Board/Staff Partnership

The moral of this story is it takes some intention and effort to build a strong board/staff partnership.  Here are some tips for how to do that:

  1. Build a strong onboarding process – create a board manual, that contains job descriptions for board members, your mission, your budget, a board directory, and the key programs or services you provide to deliver on that mission.  Ensure each new board member is assigned a board “buddy” or mentor, who can answer their questions and engage them early and often.  Ensure each new board member joins at least one committee right away so they are engaged from the outset.
  2. Sit down with each new board member – ask them if they’ve served on a board before, communicate what kind of board they are joining and what the cultural norms are (which gives you a chance to shape those norms!), and find out what role they feel most comfortable playing in fundraising.   Are they a builder, connector or closer?  Find out what skills they bring and look for ways they can deploy those skills on behalf of your mission.
  3. Examine your committee structure – make sure your committees are not solely focused on oversight and that there are opportunities for board members to learn, to work with other board members on behalf of the mission, and to be of value, not just for their technical skills (like financial management, legal expertise, etc.).  Build workplans for each committee that include at least one project related to the mission to keep them connected to it.
  4. Examine your meeting agendas – Make sure meeting agendas minimize “report outs” – those can be delivered in writing – and maximize generative discussion.  Pose at least one mission question at every meeting to give an opportunity for the board to feel deeply connected to the mission.  Remember people also join boards to meet new people – one board I sat on started every meeting with a round of “check-ins” in which each board member talked about what was happening for them personally and professionally.  It was remarkable how quickly we got to know about each other’s families, professions, and found fewer degrees of separation.
  5. Proactively build your partnership with the Board Chair – In most cases, when a new board chair comes in, the ED or CEO does not slow down and carve out the time to proactively build that partnership.  We’ve seen many instances of simple miscommunication around things like how often they should talk, what the Chair’s role should be, how the Chair can really add value, what has worked well in the past.  We get it, it feels like an interruption in the life of an ED to have to slow down every few years and build a new partnership.  But that’s the structure we work within, and it’s worth the extra effort.  It’s a negotiation sometimes, the Board Chair might want to meet weekly whereas the ED feels that is way too often.  So they need to each articulate their style and expectations and try to find a common ground that will work for both.  In some cases, it can be helpful to secure some coaching – a neutral third party to help facilitate these negotiations and help anticipate all aspects of the relationship where misunderstandings could arise.

If you focus on these recommendations, we are confident you will have a much better experience with your board.  We’ve given you a lot of recommendations here, and each of them is a bit of a project.  If you find that you want some help navigating this, we’d be happy to help you!





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