Pondering Boards

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 28th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I often wonder why people who clearly aren’t interested in hearing advice continue to invite me into their organizations and solicit my opinion – which they subsequently dismiss. 

Seriously, why pay for expertise that you’re going to ignore?  Our business model isn’t to offer advice and recommendations about needed changes only to be called back to fix the damage resulting from ignoring these cautions.  I have no shortage of examples of this pattern.

For at least five years, as an organization planned the departure of its long-serving, and much beloved, executive director, I repeatedly told the board that when that individual retired, she would have to leave the organization.  Oh, the board said, but she wants to go on the board. 

Wrong, I said. This can’t be about what she wants, but rather what is best for the organization.  And that is for the ED to leave, giving the new executive director the space to be her/his own leader.  What is best for the organization is that she leaves, sparing the staff internal warfare over which leader to follow.  But they didn’t listen and the organization is now in turmoil.  The new ED is trying to assert control and turn the ship in the direction she envisioned (and sold to the board who hired her).  But the former ED is still coming into the office, fueling her fan base, undermining the new ED and fighting every proposed change.   And the board continues to kiss the ring of the former ED. 

This is a mistake seen repeatedly, with few exceptions.  An outgoing staff member, regardless of where on the organizational chart s/he is, does not get to design an ongoing role in the organization for her/himself.  Outgoing means just that:  going out of the organization; saying good-bye; lettings others run the organization and lead it into the future. 

An alternative to leaving the staff isn’t to join the board.  This doesn’t mean the departing person is tossed to the curb – they should be appreciated, thanked, honored, etc.  But then it is time to depart, giving the new leadership the opportunity to move the organization forward unhindered by the past.

Folks also love to ignore advice on board size and composition, despite frequently asking for my recommendation.  And then I’m left to rebut their primary pronouncements:  Pronouncement one:  we need a larger board.  While I hear this from organizations with boards of five and six, for whom this desire to have a larger board makes sense.  But I also hear it from people with boards in the high teens, for whom it is most likely not a good move. 

Why, I ask do you want a larger board, although I suspect what they’ll say.  Because the board needs to raise more money.  I tell them there is no research suggesting a correlation between the size of a board and how much money it raises.  There is, however, evidence that shows a correlation between board members who understand (1) that fundraising is part of their job responsibilities, (2) why it is part of their job, (3) how to fundraise, and (4) how much money they raise when given support and guidance.  But they proceed to expand the board to numbers that require even more time to manage, where the struggle to have a quorum remains and where fundraising is no more successful than before.

Or course, it is impossible to have a conversation about boards raising more money without too many on the board seeing the solution to the problem as not just the size of the board but who is on the board.  This is where the cries for people of influence and means take over, as if these people will solve all of the problems of the board and the organization. 

In recent work with a board, I pushed back on the chair’s statement that the board needed to double in size (currently at 12) and bring on “high profile” individuals and those with money.  I explained the risks involved—not getting the big check you expected, a quid pro quo in exchange for the check/influence, the creation of factions within the board of those who have (money, influence) and those who don’t (the worker bees), and more. 

No sooner had I put a period to my explanation than a board member spoke of what happened when her did just that—brought on people of money and fame; she gave particulars to everyone one of my general points, concluding with “oh, what a mistake we made.”  As if neither of us had spoken, the board went on to create a list of people of influence and means who might be invited onto the board.  It isn’t that these people can’t be of value to a nonprofit; they can—but in the right role.  Generally, that right role is not on the governing board. 

If any of this applies to your organization, save yourself time and money and don’t bother to bring in an expert whose advice you will just ignore. 

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.