On board service
Dear Association Executive:
Recently on the American Society of Association Executive’s (ASAE) Executive Section listserv, there have been many questions about how to get the board out of the minutiae in order to find time to work on strategic direction or Ends policy. The board’s focus on the day-to-day is not their fault (entirely.) Board members want to to a good job. But most have learned the traditional approach of board service — showing up at meetings, approving staff work and debating whether or not the office can afford a new copier.
When your board is busy with staff reports, committee reports and working on day-to-day operations, they don’t have the time to focus on strategy or governing. Board members come to your meetings with dozens of other competing priorities and thinking about their own business or family decisions. Once they get to your meeting, the agenda is full of operational (staff) reports or decisions. Is it any wonder board members default into operational mode?
Hildy Gottlieb at Help4Nonprofits.com says it’s like running a ship. You, dear Association Executive, are the captain. You manage the crew, read the charts, navigate and ensure the safety of crew, ship and cargo. You make sure the cargo is delivered. The board’s role is representing the owners of the ship. The board decides what kind of ship, what cargo it will haul, where that cargo will go, to what customers and at what cost. They monitor performance based on how well you deliver. Too often, the board thinks they’re supposed to be captains. When you have nothing but captains on a ship, you have anarchy! (Plus, you sacrifice some much needed crew.)
The board’s job isn’t to run the organization. That’s what they hired you (the captain) to do. The board actually has its own job and it’s not an “extension” of yours. Their job (and their added value) is to represent the owners of the organization (people who expect certain outcomes or results.) This can be the community at large or a specific, defined group of stakeholders such as a neighborhood or micro business owners. In other words, they represent a subset of the community and sit at the board table on behalf of those who are not there. They are representatives.
My point is that, most board members don’t know that their job is representing and governing on behalf of those they represent.
if board members don’t know what their constituents think, how can they represent them? How do stakeholders have a voice in where your organization is headed? How does the board know unless they ask? Their job is to provide that vital link to the owners or stakeholders or their constituency.
Most board members don’t have a clue that that’s what they’re supposed to do. And, that’s what makes your job more difficult.
John Carver (author of Boards that Make a Difference) describes a traditional nonprofit board of directors as a group of competent individuals who get together to do incompetent things. Nonprofit board members tend to think that a nonprofit is a different animal than a for-profit. This perception is to the detriment of the organization. A nonprofit is an artificial entity created for the purpose of some pursuit — a corporation. The law gives corporations a great deal of power. For-profit corporations recognize this.
For some reason, nonprofits seem to think they have little or no power. Nonprofits have as much power as the board believes they have.
You can unleash that power by helping your board see a vision of what they can become when they’re not busy swabbing the decks and running the crew. Good board members are hard to find and harder to keep. Let’s not drive them away with mind-numbing operational matters.