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September 20, 2021
Warning Signs of Board Underperformance #147; and What to Do About It
By Cathy A. Trower

Cathy Trower
Cathy Trower
When asked why nonprofit boards underperform, board members and executive directors have no difficulty listing a host of reasons, but the best may be, “Because they can!”

As Harvard business school professor Dutch Leonard once said, “The central challenge of leadership in nonprofit organizations is that mediocrity is survivable.” While this may be true, I’ve never run across a nonprofit board member who thrills to being average or an executive director who is motived by ordinariness. Quite the contrary; those who serve the nonprofit sector are typically passionate about our causes and want to do good things in the world.

So why is it all too common to see so many smart, successful, passionate people performing so poorly, at worst, or average, at best, on nonprofit boards? What are the warning signs that something is amiss? And what might be done to counteract these tendencies?

Warning Sign #1: Disengagement
Board members disengage for many reasons. In my experience, the most common is that they are bored at board meetings as they sit listening to reports they have already read and watch mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations with way too many slides, bullets, and sub-bullets.

I’ve never understood why we put all these smart people on our boards and then talk at them instead of engaging them in robust discourse and spirited debate about the most important issues facing our organizations.

Antidote: Invite the board into meaningful dialogue early—when issues are still ambiguous and problems need to be framed—and allow enough time at board meetings for full and open discussion.

Warning Sign #2: Micromanagement
This warning sign is the opposite of the first but sometimes occurs for the same reason: board members micromanage because they aren’t invited to macro-govern. Presenting to board members, rather than engaging with them, is practically an invitation into minutia. Just to stay awake, and show that they’re prepared, board members will readily dive into the weeds—and take others with them—by asking a question about Slide 29, bullet 10, or page 52 of the report.

Antidote: Get the board in the habit of doing homework before the meeting. Send reports 10 days in advance, highlight what’s important, and tee up questions for the board to think about in advance of the meeting.

Warning Sign #3: Board Lacks Focus
Many nonprofit CEOs complain that their board is “all over the map” and board members express frustration that they’re unclear about what they’re supposed to do to add value.

Antidote: Have senior staff and board members answer the question, What is the single most important issue we need to address in the next 12 month? Then, compile the results, set an annual work plan for the board around the top few issues, and set one or two goals for board meetings.

Warning Sign #4: Board Lacks Accountability
There’s an old joke that CEOs might not find humorous: “Management messes up; fire management. Board messes up; fire management.” The trouble is this is all too true. No single individual on a nonprofit board is accountable. In fact, most of the time, the board as a whole isn’t either. It’s the CEO who has to explain board decisions to various stakeholders.

Antidote: Utilize a practice known as pre-decisional accountability by stating that, after board deliberations or a board decision, two board members will be randomly selected to explain what happened at the meeting. Suddenly, you’ve got your board paying attention, taking notes, listening carefully, and participating more fully.

Warning Sign #5: Group Dynamics Run Amok
A sense of team is essential to high performance in the boardroom. All great teams have a stated common purpose with clearly articulated and compelling goals. Team members know how they can best contribute and work hard to establish trust through respect. But many boards in no way resemble a high-performing team as some dominate while others say little; some interrupt; some show little tolerance for process or a different point of view.

Antidote: Have the board work together to codify a statement of norms and expectations. Have a governance committee that pays attention and holds board members accountable to uphold the code. If violations are allowed, bad behavior will continue and erode team play and good governance.

Although there are numerous warning signs of board underperformance, there are many remedies. If detected early enough, corrections can be made and the board can get back on track to helping lead the organization forward in pursuit of it mission.

Cathy A. Trower is president of the consulting firm Trower & Trower, Inc. and author of The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards (2013, Jossey Bass). Email her at
May 2014
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