Board & Organizational Development really can't have one without the other.

I was asked to submit a guest blog to the Connecticut Main Street Center about finding board members. During the process of ripping apart an old article on working boards...and trying to piece it together again sans tongue in cheek...I realized that I have a LOT to say on the topic of board development. Part of it is old trauma still rearing its ugly head after having spent the better part of five years trying to get a dysfunctional board to actually work.

One of the most dreaded lines I’d heard as an executive director from board members (and I heard it many, many times. Grrrrr) was, “I don’t have time for this, I have a full-time job!” And in the back of my mind, I answered the same way every time, “Yes, but you also have a part-time job. Here. In this organization. You signed up for this. You VOLUNTEERED.”

Simply put no one puts a gun to the heads of working board members and forces them to fill a vacant seat in an organization. So why is it so common for working boards to be filled with board members who do very little work for the nonprofit they’re serving?

Looking back now, so many peaceful, non-executive director years later (and perhaps a little therapy!), I can see many valid reasons for dysfunctional boards and nonworking working board members. The overwhelming majority of those reasons come from the organization itself and not from the individual board members. (If you’re an ED, I know you hate me now! Sorry, not sorry...but someone’s got to tell you true!)

What I’ve come to realize, from the perspective of a consultant, is that without proper organizational development, board development efforts are typically fruitless. Once a “lazy board” takes hold, there aren’t functional board members to lead the way and set shiny examples for newcomers. Sure, every now and then a rock star enters the board room. And you stare in awe, jaw to the floor, giddy with excitement, hoping, praying, that the stardust will spread and envelop the others. But more likely than not, that board member will tire of the weight of the organization...just as your ED does...but a volunteer board member has a much easier time stepping off, after all, no one has a gun to their head, right?

Before you go running to apply for a carry and conceal permit, let’s talk about organizational and board development. This series is meant to elevate nonprofit organizations with working boards to a more functional and efficient level. I’m going to alternate posts – one focused on organizational development and the next on board development, weaving the two together.

Let’s start with a list of reasons why your working board may be dysfunctional and a second list of what needs to happen internally to tighten up the organization so that you can adopt better board member practices.

Reasons for a Nonworking Board

  • Board member roles and responsibilities weren’t presented to prospects ahead of time
  • No policies and procedures for board members
  • Lack of enforcement/accountability for board members
  • Filling vacancies with any willing warm body
  • No/weak structure to board meetings
  • Strong ED/staff unwilling to delegate or share pertinent information
  • Unsuitable mix of stakeholders at the table
  • High employee turnover – no stable organizational leadership
  • Board members who are serving multiple organizations
  • Low turnover of board members
Better Organizational Practices

  • Develop a board member handbook; distribute it to current and prospective members to review and sign
  • Create a policy whereby the Chairman and the ED are accountable to one another
  • Ensure proper setup of the organization with clear policies and procedures and appropriate insurance to protect board members
  • Create a pipeline of future board members, drawing from volunteers and committee members, not the general public
  • Adopt Robert’s Rules of Order for board meetings (or make up your own!), have an appropriate agenda, assign a timekeeper and an ELMO prodder. (It’s not how it sounds, I swear – no red, fuzzy puppets will be harmed! When Bob starts talking about his fishing trip – ELMO!! (Enoughalready, Let’s Move On!)
  • Delineate clearly the responsibilities of a staff member and of a board member
  • Adopt and utilize a proper board matrix
  • Hire a rock star ED who is transitional and willing to stay on just long enough to turn the ship around, then hire a steady captain to stay the course and lead the crew
  • Get rid of all dead weight, staff and volunteers
  • Create a board rotation plan and term limits

Stay tuned, we’re going to dig deeper into each one of these items...


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