Accepting Board Underperformance

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 1st, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

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One of my favorite classes in the eight-week online sessions of the La Salle Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership is in nonprofit governance.   After each class, I relish reading and responding to each of the more than 200 student posts per discussion board.

At the start of the session, I tell students, all of whom work for various nonprofits, that they are going to find this a very difficult class.  Yes, there is a lot of work, but that’s not why it will be difficult; they are up to that task.  It is going to be difficult because they will see just how poorly their own organizations’ boards are performing.   Those who thought their boards weren’t so bad are going to learn they really are.  Those who though their boards weren’t so great are going to come to realize just how terrible they really are.  We are in week three and the despair has already begun to set in.  And when they realize that theirs is not the only board where practice is far from what should be, the despair deepens as the fear rises that change may just be elusive.

Some of the sources of despair.

  • The difficulty in getting to see board minutes. Out of 20 students, only two had easy access to board minutes.  One of those students works at a quasi-government nonprofit and his minutes, obviously, must be available to all—the public, employees, etc.  The other just had to ask the administrative assistant, because she takes the minutes.  But the rest of the class had struggles, and some have yet to gain access.  Any wonder that staff feels so removed from the board?  Any wonder that so many nonprofits operate in an “us” vs. “them” world—totally opposite of how it should be.
  • Even I was amazed that more than half of the 20 organizations represented have a staff member take the minutes of board meetings. And even more absurd:  several students noted that the minutes are “signed off on” by the executive director!  Half of U.S. states mandate that one of the officer positions be a secretary (sometimes referred to as clerk).  Why have that position if not to be the minute-taker, and not just the caretaker, of minutes?  Board meetings are, by definition, gatherings of the board and the record of those meetings should be recorded by a member of that board.
  • No surprise, a number of organizations have the executive director sitting on the board, misunderstanding the meaning of ex officio, believing that means the person has no vote. One even has the executive director serving as the Chair of the Board.
  • Of course many students’ organizations are suffering from the ills of no term limits, and the inability to move the board and the organization into the 21st Without the understanding of the whys and why nots of term limits, students see laziness (my word, not theirs), setting in.  Plus, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
  • Many were surprised to learn that there shouldn’t be legacy seats on a board: a seat reserved for a family member of the founding family or a representative of a long-standing donor.
  • Coming to understand that the board’s conflict of interest policy doesn’t mean that the organization won’t do business with board members’ companies, but only that the board member will disclose the conflict. And with this comes the recognition that the board is willing to put the business interests of its peers before the protection of the nonprofit’s reputation.  That breeds a lot of confidence in that board’s decision making!
  • The realization that the ED is the gatekeeper between board and staff and that there are actually EDs who keep that gate wide open, encouraging the building of the “we” that makes for healthy nonprofits. But that there are far more nonprofits where board members could—and do—walk into the office and staff wouldn’t know who they were and board members wouldn’t know who staff were.

It never ceases to amaze me how much poor performance gets accepted as normative behavior in the world of nonprofit boards, where underperforming is not only accepted and tolerated, it is even lauded.  Where else in American society do we celebrate also-rans?



The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.