This post is by Jacob Smith, co-author of the The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit. The book is so awesome that I asked Jacob to post excerpts from it here for you, every Friday for ten weeks.
Maybe you have an amazing board of directors that has perfect chemistry and does five times more than you could imagine asking of them. They support you and the organization, they hold you accountable, they challenge your thinking and broaden your horizons, and they raise more money than you budgeted. (If that’s the case, feel free to skip this section.)
But if your experience running a nonprofit is anything close to average, your board of directors will be one of your greatest frustrations. As Boardsource reported, “[a]ccording to chief executives and board members themselves, nonprofit board performance is mediocre at best.” Or, as nonprofit consultants and researchers Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor ask in an oft-cited book on nonprofit governance, “Why is there so much rhetoric that touts the significance and centrality of non-profit boards, but so much empirical and anecdotal evidence that boards of trustees are only marginally relevant or intermittently consequential?”
It is more likely that your board will either be well-meaning but inept or mediocre but dysfunctional. And because you’ve heard so many times about the importance of building a strong board— from the nonprofit management books, from your nonprofit management classes, from your peers and funders, from your own board members—you may feel a sense of urgency about making board development a top priority.
Get over it.
It’s not a bad thing to help your board become stronger and more effective, of course, and a good board really can contribute mightily to an organization’s success. An effective board can set clear performance expectations for the executive director and hold her accountable to those expectations. A high-performing board can help the executive director stretch and grow in the role. Boards have important fiduciary responsibilities, and a strong board can provide critical financial oversight, making sure the executive director is asking the right financial management questions and catching problems before they become catastrophes. A good board can productively collaborate with the executive director on the organization’s long-term vision and high-level strategy decisions. Heck, some boards actually do the one thing most executive directors crave: raise lots of money for the organization.
But you only have so many hours in the day, and everything you do has an opportunity cost. You can spend an incredible amount of energy trying to figure out who to put on the board, how to manage them, how to push them, and how to convince them to be big fundraisers. Sometimes, a small bit of work will produce lots of benefit. But most of the time, herculean effort on your part won’t produce equally sizable results. And the time and energy you spend on your board is time and energy you can’t spend on anything else. Give your board some attention, but don’t let board management be a major source of stress (there are plenty of other things to stress about).
In other words, have an optimization strategy for dealing with your board. Find a comfortable balance between how much effort you expend on your board and how much value for your organization you get from it. A filmmaking nonprofit working in central Africa charges its three-person board of directors with financial oversight of the organization but created a separate advisory board to provide strategic guidance. In this way, they are getting more out of their boards by making sure to get the right people assigned to the right job.
One executive director and the board of a nonprofit that helps urban kids develop strong academic and business skills scrapped the traditional function-based committee structure (e.g., finance, governance, audit) and instead organized the committees around the major strategic plan goals: debt reduction, the capital campaign, and program enhancement. Each board member was consequently part of a team with clear, well-delineated goals that tracked directly to the organization’s output and outcome goals.
Another example: Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, in The Networked Nonprofit, describe how the American Jewish Committee switched from standing committees to all ad hoc committees to create more focus and flexibility. As the organization’s needs change, the board can rapidly change structure to adapt.
The key is to be smart and realistic about your board’s role and contributions, to have a solid grasp of how much energy you expend working with them, and to make sure the value to the organization is reasonable for the effort you are putting in. of course, it wouldn’t hurt for you to develop strong board management skills, so you can guide your board toward the questions you want it to answer and away from those you don’t (now that’s a course they ought to teach in nonprofit degree programs). One simple starting point: figure out what questions you really want them to engage with and which ones you’d rather they leave alone, and create your meeting agendas and packets with this in mind. Whatever you do, don’t try to create a Bionic super Board.
“Good enough” really is OK.