Heads in the Sand (Again)

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 20th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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head in sand
Last week, we sent out an e-mail blast with the subject line:  Does your board want to be the best?  While we always receive responses, there was an immediate one that was unique in both content and brevity.  It read, simply:  “No!”

After I stopped laughing, my concern kicked in:   I stopped and thought:  oh, maybe the writer was being serious.  Maybe he, let me call him Bob, and the board had zero interest in doing things right.  As opposed to how I read it, which was he was frustrated beyond belief by his failed efforts to get the board to be its best, and all he had left in him was that no.  (Again, not an uncommon story we hear from that lone wolf on a board.)  Fortunately, as I truly don’t like to laugh at people unless they are laughing with me, it turned out that I had read his response correctly.  There was no doubt I had to contact him and find out what was behind his one word response.

Behind his no was the tale of a struggle to get the several boards on which he’d served to step up to the plate and do their real work, to be strategic in their decision making, to remember that the function of boards is to serve the mission not the reverse, to do what is best for the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission and not what is most expedient, etc.  Does the fact that fewer people opened this particular email message than any other one The Nonprofit Center has sent in the past two years underscore his conclusions about a lack of commitment to board excellence? 

I couldn’t help but think of Bob and his frustrations as I heard the same scenario, though from two different groups, for the second time in that many weeks.  In each case, the board replaces its departed executive director (one was let go as a cost saving, the other resigned) with a board member who will be the volunteer executive director.  For one organization, this will be the permanent “solution”; for the other, it is not clear whether it will be interim or permanent.   One of these organizations, according to the most recent 990 on Guidestar, has total assets over $3 million; the other just under $34 million. Hardly mom and pop operations.

What were these boards thinking?  Or rather, were these boards thinking?  Clearly, they are boards akin to those in Bob’s past.  When it came time to answer the question “do you want to be the best board you can be?” these two boards took no time to say, “Hell, no!”  Let’s be the expedient boards; let’s be the illogical board; let’s be the board that truly doesn’t understand return on investment!  We will impress people with our swift action, they must have said. 

Did either of these boards take the time to think through their decisions?  think through the repercussions?   Did either board bother to “interview” the board member candidate? to see whether the board member brings the skills that the organization needs going forward?   to determine if this board member candidate was truly the best for the job at this point in the organization’s history?

While the selection of an executive director should never be a decision driven by convenience and ease, that logic rings even louder during the tough times in which we are currently operating.  Now is the time when nonprofits need executive directors with the clearest vision, the strongest set of skills, the best track records, etc.  Now is the time when nonprofits needs boards that answer the question, “Do you want to be the best?” with a profound and resounding “Yes!” 

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.