Photo by Northeast Indiana via Creative Commons
Attitudes toward boards of directors in the nonprofits I’ve been around range from awe to grudging respect to frustration. There’s not enough awe, though, and too much frustration.
A couple of English writers have just published a short article that asks, provocatively, how much does an underperforming board cost? And what would it cost, in contrast, to invest both time and money in assuring strong leadership, leadership that supports rather than bypassing—or worse, frustrating—the work of the organization as a whole?
Ruth Lesirge and Hilary Barnard, in “First Among Equals” (posted online as a PDF), focus on the ways a good chair can help a board be a resource for strength. They urge careful recruitment and professional development support for board chairs “comparable to that of the chief executive.”
In theory, the board of directors represents the brains, the heart and the conscience of the organization as a whole. That’s not to take anything away from the energy, care, and intelligence employees and other volunteers bring to the work every day. Law and theory both insist, though, that there has to be oversight of the public purposes and the corporate responsibilities of the organization, oversight that isn’t shaped by everyday stresses and strains. Providing such oversight is the unique task of the board.
But how many do it well? Here are some features that make board work challenging:
- Board work is often episodic, with long periods where there’s nothing pressing on the agenda.
- Some people see boards as watchdogs and think they should focus on preventing harm, not be engaged in doing good.
- The risk that the board will “interfere” or “micromanage” often leads to efforts to limit, not understand, a board’s connection to the strength of the organization.
The too common result: Boards that dutifully perform a sort of charade — listening to reports, making comments and suggestions, and coming back next month for more of the same.
The way the board works should be handled with care, a real opportunity to build toward an even more effective organization. “First Among Equals” will be a conversation starter for any group that wants to examine how much lack of investment in their board’s performance might be costing.
For additional ideas check out the nonprofit BoardSource, which provides in-depth resources to support members’ investments in maintaining highly effective governance.
[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]