Eight Mistakes that Even Good Nonprofit Boards Make
By Anne Wallestad
The role of a board of directors is not an easy one; strong governance and board leadership require dedication and intentionality from each and every board member, as well as from the executive.
Its a big job, which, for most board members, falls on top of an already-maxed-out set of professional responsibilities.
Its no surprise, then, that even the best boards can get tripped up by these common mistakes:
1. Underselling the Commitment
One of the most fundamental challenges is getting the right people on the board. Given that challenge, its understandable that board leaders can be a bit over-eager when they identify a potential candidate, and they make the mistake of underselling the commitment. Instead of being honest about whats really needed from the potential board member, they try to diminish or understate the commitment to try to increase the likelihood of a yes.” The problem, of course, is that if you frame the job as Not that much time” or Not that much work,” that might be exactly what you get.
2. Taking Shortcuts with Board Orientation and Education
In a similar vein, its not unusual that time isnt taken to provide board members with orientation and ongoing education. Its assumed that board members know what their roles and responsibilities are, and how to apply them within your organization. But according to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, more than one-third of nonprofit executives give their boards a C or below on understanding board roles and responsibilities.”
Since board members cant do a good job if they dont fully understand what the job is, it is wise to take the time to orient new board members and provide ongoing education for the full board. Even quick educational moments on such things as reading nonprofit financials or understanding conflicts of interest can make a big difference in the boards governance performance.
3. Fly-by-the-Seat-of-Your-Pants Meeting Planning
Productive board meetings do not happen on their own. They require careful agenda planning, thoughtful preparation of background reading and materials, and skilled facilitation. And none of that is possible if executives and chairs are throwing together meeting agendas and materials at the last minute. Think of your boards meeting time as a valuable and limited resource that needs to be maximized.
Consider using a consent agenda as a way to save time on straightforward reporting and information-sharing, which will enable you to preserve discussion time for the most important issues facing your organization. And remember that some of the most important work that a board does is framing and making sense of issues that require no immediate decision making but might inform the way that the members think and deliberate for years to come. Those conversations are critical to your organizations future, and simply wont happen without thoughtful meeting preparation.
4. Over-Engaging the Executive Committee
Many boards have an executive committee, which isnt a mistake in and of itself, but it can be if the executive committee wields too much power. Executive committees are typically designed to play a role with agenda-framing and, if needed, can provide counsel or urgent decision-making in between board meetings.
Its quite easy for executive committees to become an inner circle of board power, usurping the full boards role by moving all of the real decision making and thinking to the executive committee. This is especially common when a board is relatively large, as the executive committee serves as a more manageable size for real deliberation and decision making, and the rest of the board is relegated to listening to report-outs on the work done by the executive committee.
Boards and executives that enable themselves to get into this dynamic do so at their own peril. A large group of board members with full legal responsibility and voting power, but little opportunity to engage, is truly a recipe for disaster.
5. Thinking Its All About Fundraising
Its no secret that the majority of executives want their boards to be better at fundraising. But sometimes executives and board members are so focused on strengthening fundraising that they let fundraising priorities completely overtake the way that a board functions.
The work of the boardincluding board meeting timecan become dominated by fundraising needs, and the board can lose focus on its most important responsibilities, which are providing broad leadership and oversight to the organization. Similarly, board recruitment can become singularly focused on large-scale givers, to the exclusion of other important perspectives or areas of expertise.
Disengaged or disruptive board members can be excused” for challenging behaviors because they are big donors, eroding the culture and productiveness of the board. You need your board for much more than fundraising, so dont make the mistake of letting fundraising become the lens through which all board engagement is viewed or evaluated.
6. Thinking Its Not About Fundraising At All
Except for those organizations that simply dont raise funds, its also a big mistake for boards to completely disregard the boards engagement in fundraising. Some boardsor board membersinsist that fundraising isnt a board responsibility, and refuse to engage in helping the organization identify and connect with potential sources of funding.
This is a misreading of guidance that makes the distinction between governing responsibilities (the boards responsibilities as a full board) and the leadership responsibilities of individual board members, which is where fundraising responsibilities lie. Devaluing or disregarding the board responsibilities that take place outside the board roomsuch as fundraising and advocacyis a huge mistake, and significantly limits the ability of the organization to build a strong external reputation and presence.
7. Failing to Monitor and Evaluate Results
Programmatic oversight goes far beyond CEO/ED assessment. Too many boards think that they can fully delegate programmatic oversight to the executive, and dont take the time to understand programmatic quality and results. This is a big mistake, as the boards role in programmatic oversight is essential not just to organizational accountability, but also to the boards ability to play a meaningful role in future strategy and planning.
Similar to the role that boards should be playing with financial oversight, board members shouldnt micromanage or dictate what should be happening tactically, but they should have a good understanding of whats working, whats not, and what the executive is planning to do about it.
8. Not Paying Attention to Board Performance
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, far too many board members make the mistake of not paying attention to the boards overall performance. Both the full board and individual board members must be held to a high standard of performance. This is ideally done through a formal governance committee, which is charged with leading the boards efforts to manage itself.
Governance committees do such things as lead board self-assessments, review and uphold board policies and expectations, evaluate and address challenging issues with individual board members, and help cultivate a positive board dynamic and culture. Without those critical functions, the culture and performance of the board will suffer, and the dysfunction or lack of engagement that ensues can top all of these other mistakes combined in terms of the negative impact on the organizations work.
Theres no question that providing strong leadership and governance is a big job. As a volunteer board member, it can be tough to prioritize all of the things that the role asks of you, and its easy to make mistakes. But being a truly exceptional board leader isnt about being perfect. Its about bringing intentionality and focus to everything that you do, and taking the time to learn and reflect as you go.