6. Governors, watchdogs, or champions

When it comes to governance, I have to admit I've got a bit of a bad attitude.

I've gotten to the point where I don't even like using that word when talking about the Boards of social change organizations.

So on this page, I'm going to offer a different way of looking at governance. 

And to do this I'm going to focus on three questions...

1.  What is governance really? Here's a clue:

It's not rocket science.

2.  Why do we not want governors to devolve into watchdogs? Again, a clue:

Watchdogs are adversaries.

3.  Why do we want Board members to be champions? And the clue:

Champions are advocates.

Here's an interesting fact...

A top quality ED with a top-quality staff dedicated to the welfare of their nonprofit can do all the governance duties themselves just fine without a Board.

How do we know?

We know this, because this is exactly what happens every single day in a whole hell of a lot of nonprofits that have negligent or irrelevant Boards.

In those organizations, the ED and the staff are the de-facto governors, and more power to them.

Which brings us to this question...

What exactly is the value that Boards add to our nonprofits?


What are the circumstances in which Boards subtract value?

In recent years in our sector, there has been increased emphasis on governance as a strategy to get Boards to be responsible.

The word "governance" means that the Board is supposed to "govern" the organization, which means the Board is the highest authority and thus authorized to give orders and have the last word on any decision.

But do we want this to be true?

Even if it's technically true, is this how we want to operate in practice?

Especially as social change or social justice organizations.

Let's start answering this dilemma by breaking down governance.

On the website of the Independent Sector there's a comprehensive list of 33 Governance Principles put together by a panel of top nonprofit leaders over a period of 18 months.

Some of the principles, though written in dressed-up legal language, are pretty simple at core, like...

You should follow all federal, state, and local laws.

You should be honest in your fundraising.

A Board member should not cast a vote when he has a clear conflict of interest.

The nonprofit should not provide loans to directors, officers, or trustees.

No one from the nonprofit should coerce, intimidate, or harass potential donors.

What I notice first about these principles is that, for people of good character, they are no-brainers. You don't have to tell a person of good character to be honest, because he already is, and he wants to be.

Here are some more principles...

You should protect your important business documents and records.

You should have proper insurance.

The Board should meet often enough to take care of business.

Again, for responsible people, these are common-sense items.

So if you've recruited the right people in the first place, you don't need to spend more than a few brief moments of Board time on such things.

Of the 33 principles there are only six which are required by law, all of which fall in the no-brainer category.

Okay, that's the easy stuff.

Next, let's take this principle...

"21.  A charitable organization must keep complete, current, and accurate financial records, Its board should receive and review timely reports of the organization's financial activities and should have a qualified, independent financial expert audit or review these statements annually in a manner appropriate to the organization's size and scale of operations."

Here we see some complexity. First, the core work of this governance principle is being carried out by the ED and the staff. And I've seen many, many situations where the ED is much more dedicated to excellence in financial management than the Board is.

So in those cases, who's actually doing the work of governance—the Board members who flip through the financial statements casually but who couldn't tell you anything about what's in them or the ED who knows every line of the financials intimately?

The panel which put together the 33 Principles was hoping to get Boards to step up to a higher level of responsibility. But does that mean we're looking for the Boards to be more responsible and staff to be less responsible? Of course not.

We could look at it this way, then...

We would want an ED and her staff to operate at such a high level and in a total governance mindset, so that if the Board failed to carry out its duties, governance would be taken care of anyway.

And then if the Board chooses to operate in accord with all the governance principles, it would add value by being a second set of eyes on all these issues—in partnership with the staff.

Now let's take another principle...

"8.  A charitable organization must have a governing body that is responsible for reviewing and approving the organization's mission and strategic direction, annual budget and key financial transactions, compensation practices and policies, and fiscal and governance policies."

This is more complex. The principle says the Board must "approve and review" not "design and create." which is left to the staff to do.

There's real value in the checks and balances a Board can bring to a nonprofit—if the Board members are competent, engaged, and invested in the welfare of the agency.

But in real life a range of things happen...

Some Boards make the time to be very involved in planning.

Some Boards make the time and make a hash of the process.

Some Boards don't have the time to dig in deep enough to do effective strategic thinking, so they do a cursory review and basically trust to the expertise of the staff.

Some Boards take the strategic planning over from the staff altogether.

The more complications there are, not in theory, but in the on-the-ground reality of the nonprofit, the greater the need there is for the Board and ED to...

Negotiate the key issues of authority and decision making.

There is no black-and-white rule for all Boards of all nonprofits to follow.


A simple form for a complex relationship
For the Board of a nonprofit...

Governance needs to be simple.

That's because the Board members have so very few hours in which to get to know each other, set their priorities, figure out how to work together, and then actually conduct business, as well as make their larger contributions.

And the governance duties in and of themselves are simple.

But add in the people factor and governance can, in fact, become complicated, because...

The relationship between the Board and the ED can be complex.

Check out these possible scenarios...

You've got a first-time, brand-new ED, but a very experienced Board.

You've got a veteran ED, but a Board of people who have never served on a Board before.

You've got a bunch of staff who are talented at strategic thinking and a Board that doesn't have that talent. Or vice versa.

You've got a staff who are successful fundraisers and a Board that hates fundraising. Or vice versa.

You've got some staff who are top-performers and some who are not. You've got some Board members who are top-performers and some who are not.

And that's just a short list.

Now tell me...

Who does what in each of those circumstances?

Oy. Lots of possible answers.

This is why, as good as a list of governance principles might be, it can't answer the practical decisions that a Board and an ED need to make together. Which brings us right back from the legal element to the human element. And relationship work.


Relationship negotiations
The most important thing a Board and ED do together is to...

Negotiate their working relationship.

So you need Board members who can do that well. Like I say on my page about recruiting, I recommend that 100% of the people you bring onto your Board be people of good character.

But now I want to add this...

Also recruit some people who are skilled at having forthright, but kind and supportive relationship conversations.

Not everyone on your Board has to have that skill, but I recommend recruiting a solid number who will be able to lead those conversations for the Board.

Please don't stick someone on your Board and then tell them they have to be a good communicator. Instead find people who already have that skill at the level that you need and recruit them.

Now let's look at governance drift—the tendency for governors to turn into watchdogs.

Whenever a nonprofit is caught in a media exposé for financial mismanagement or unethical fundraising or other malfeasance, it hurts our whole sector. It shouldn't, because in every sector of our economy there are people who do bad things.

But that doesn't matter. When a nonprofit is spotlighted for wrongdoing, it does tend to hurt our whole sector, because our fundraising depends so much on keeping the public's trust.

So I understand why some folks might decide to design their thinking about Boards around...

The worst case possibility.

They want to protect the sector.

The problem, though, is that...

This is a fear-based strategy.

And it leads to building Boards of watchdogs.

And while the intentions are good, I think this can lead to an attitude which is not good, because...

Watchdogs are adversaries.

They are fault finders.

They are critical parents.

They are judges.

And I believe that in our sector in their attempts to make things better...

Watchdogs actually make things worse.

Here's an example of the fear-based attitude in action...

My Board members are all nice enough people, but three months ago, one of them read a scary article about malfeasance in nonprofits and passed it around and now they've all got it in their heads that they should dog our every step.

Their questions have become accusatory. They consider us guilty until we prove ourselves innocent. And it doesn't matter how many times we prove to them that we know what we're doing and that we're adhering to the highest standards, they remain in attack mode. That feeling is always in the air.

And what's the result? I'm exhausted with it. I feel like I'm walking through a minefield.

As an ED, I would never treat my staff this way, because I know if I did, I'd be throwing them off their game. I'd be creating an atmosphere of fear where they'd be so tense and reactive that they'd make mistakes they wouldn't otherwise make.

That's the effect this new Board mood is having on me. I'm trying to talk them out of it, because if they don't quit, I will.

Some Board members get into watchdogging from sincere motives. They want to assure quality. And that's a good thing to want.

And in a moment we're going to get to what I think is a much better way to assure quality than either watchdogging or conventional governance. But first I want to respond to this argument...

We have watchdogs for Wall Street, so why not for nonprofits?

And pardon me if I get a little intense about this, but so much damage has been done to our country by Wall Street, that it's a little hard to remain dispassionate. And I do understand that Wall Street didn't make this mess alone. There was a whole lot of colluding going on.

But I do want to take a stand for the nonprofit sector, even knowing full well that we have our own issues and failings, and knowing that the nonprofit structure can easily be used by bad people to do bad things.

Still, I want to highlight the key difference between our sector and the enormous Wall Street investment banks...

We know what it is to have a mission. That's what powers our organizations. Not perfectly by any means, but mission is our core.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street giants have proven to us that they run on greed. And greed is not a mission.

The Wall Street guys...

Talk patriotism while deeply damaging the economy and the future of the country they say they love, and for no better purpose than excessive personal gain.

Nonprofits, in general, by contrast...

Live the deepest kind of patriotism by working hard to care for the people who actually make up this country, including especially those who are being hurt the most or exploited the most.

We lowly nonprofits with our thousands compared to their billions, could teach Wall Street what it means to bring your soul to work.

So yes, we need to watchdog Wall Street, because that mega-system of financial companies is dedicated to exploitation.

It doesn't matter how many good people might be working in those companies, the system is designed to incentivize maximum personal gain and damn the consequences.

But here's the irony...

Although we do need to watchdog Wall Street, the watchdogging is not working.

It didn't work to prevent the economic disaster. And the new legislation, despite the attendant fanfare, has giant loopholes, because of the influence of the companies themselves in the design of the legislation.

These are companies which, as many have argued, are too big. But whatever size they should be, the most important thing for them to do would be...

To get a mission.

And then live by it.

For example, what they adopted this as their purpose...

To make the economy stronger and more sustainable for the sake of everyone.

Watchdogging is just never going to be a substitute for commitment to a true mission.

But we nonprofits, despite all our problems, start with mission. That's our chief strength.

And that strength is where I believe we need to begin in designing our strategies for building the best possible Boards.


What if, instead of starting with the worst cases, we started with the best?

What if...

We designed our whole approach to Boards based on the strongest nonprofits, not the weakest, or potentially most corrupt.

This is the...

Strengths-based approach.

And it leads us to build Boards of...



Champions are advocates.

They champion the mission.

They stand by and with the ED and staff.

They don't want to have power over the ED and staff, but want to be powerful with them in service of the mission.

We're talking about a Board of advocates who care and care deeply about quality and ethics and sustainability and responsibility and mission and are willing to take a stand for these things and do take a stand for them all the time.

Champions look after all the things that fall under the description of governance, not because they are governors, but because they are advocates who care deeply about the organization being the best it can be.

And the same is true of the ED and the staff, who are also champions for the organization. They're going to make sure all the governance issues are taken care of beautifully and thoroughly, because they love this organization.

So best case scenario, there's no need for watchdogs.

But what if something goes wrong?


Enforcement triggers
Let's say you're on a Board of Directors for a nonprofit that does after-school and weekend recreation programs for kids in city parks. You've got two big vans that go out with softballs and bats and soccer balls and kick balls and boom boxes and drums and paints and brushes and giant sheets of paper.

You've hired a new ED and three months in, your treasurer calls an emergency meeting...

I just learned that since our ED found out about our reserve fund two weeks ago, she's signed a purchase agreement for two new vans, even though our service guy in his last annual check up said both vans have a whole lot more life left in them. She's also signed a lease agreement for new offices in the financial district.

When I asked her about this she said she wanted to upgrade the look and feel of the organization.

I explained to her that it's better for us to have offices in the community we serve, and that donors who want to see the program in action go out in the vans with the staff, they don't care about our offices.

In fact, donors like that our office space comes cheap. And they like that we maintain our vehicles so we get the most out of them. They like that we focus our spending on the actual programs in the parks.

Her reply was, "Well, I think this is a good thing to do anyway and it's my decision as ED. And personally, I think I deserve to work in quality surroundings."

Now what do you and your fellow Board members do?

You've been operating as advocates instead of watchdogs. That's important to you. You've seen that having an advocacy relationship with the staff has done very good things for the effectiveness of the organization.

Has that been a mistake? No, it hasn't. That's because the advocacy stance...

Doesn't mean that anything goes.

It doesn't mean that you let yourselves be buffaloed.

It doesn't mean that you're passive.

It doesn't mean that you tolerate acting out or incompetence.

Advocacy means...

You're paying very close attention to the organization because you love it.

And it means that...

When there's an enforcement trigger, you become enforcers.

And you do that immediately.

Taking a stand for the agency is part of advocacy. An essential part of it. You're not advocates if you don't do that.

So, as advocates, you...

Show this ED, again, where it says in the organizational policies that she cannot purchase vehicles or sign lease agreements without authorization from the Board in writing.

You remind her that you talked with her in detail about his in the course of hiring her.

And then you fire her.

And you have your lawyer cancel the agreements because they're not legal.

Being an advocate is not the same thing as being a nice guy.

Now that was an easy situation to figure out because the EDs behavior was so egregious.

Let's take another situation that's more complicated. Say you're on the Board of a nonprofit that does programs in the schools. You've got 16 staff but in the last two months four of them have left. Two of the remaining staff called the Board Chair at home to complain that the ED has been driving people out.

So at the next Board meeting, the Chair proposes that the Board order the ED to stop the turnover.

Now a Board, distant from the work of the organization and in a strict watchdog mindset, might just give that order. I've seen this kind of thing happen. You've probably seen it.

But let's say that Austin, a new Board member is uncomfortable making that decision without knowing more about what's going on in the organization, so he volunteers to go have a talk with the ED.

Austin:  The Board is concerned with the high rate of turnover.

Stacey:  I'm not. It's okay. Not to worry.

Austin:  Because...

Stacey:  Because I've got it under control. Finally.

Austin:  What do you mean by finally?

Stacey:  Just that we've needed to do this, but I hadn't realized it. Or, actually, I wasn't ready to do it. But now I am and it's not something the Board needs to bother with. It's all okay and the turnover will be done after two more staff leave.

Austin:  Whatever do you mean?!

Stacey:  It's part of a plan.

Austin:  What kind of plan? I feel like you don't really want to answer my questions.

Stacey:  Well, the Board has never taken an interest in the organization before. What's this all about?

Austin:  Two of your staff called the Chair to complain.

Stacey:  Oh, I hadn't heard about that. But it's not a surprise.

Austin:  Are those the two you believe are going to leave?

Stacey:  Probably so.

Austin:  Hold on, let's jump back a second. What do you mean the Board has never taken an interest?

Stacey:  No current member of the Board has ever been out to see one of our programs in action. When I asked if you guys wanted presentations from our two program directors, the subject got changed and no one ever got back to me on that. When I call to talk about issues with the Chair he never has time and he never calls me back. So I just figured that the Board's not interested.

Austin:  Yikes, that's not good.

Stacey:  But here's what really matters right now. I got a wake up call this Spring, so I've been in high gear taking the necessary action. It's been really, really hard, but everything is working out.

Austin:  Wow, I'm really in the dark here. Look, let's start over, okay?  I've only been on the Board two months and I find what you're telling me disturbing. I do want to come visit the programs and I do want to know what's going on, and if you're taking on some kind of big challenge I want to know if you need help with it.

Stacey:  Really?

Austin:  Yes, really.

Stacey:  I'm kind of wrung out from these past two months, but I'm really close to being done. I'm sorry to be so stand-offish with you, but if the Board is going to butt its nose in here at the last minute and make a mess, then I have to tell you I really don't need that.

Austin:  Okay, I'm getting that there's something very serious going on here. So let me try this: I am really and truly an advocate for EDs. I think you guys have one of the hardest jobs in the world. I'm hearing from you that you have what's essentially an absentee Board. And I want you to know that I don't think that's okay.

What I'd like to ask you to do is tell me what's going on. Because if what you're up to is something good for the organization, then I promise you I will be your ally. And I can tell you I have no problem with going back to the Board and insisting that they behave better.

And if they don't I will work with you to bring on some new members who get what needs to be done to change the Board and are willing to do it.

Do we have a deal? Remember, I'm agreeing to this only if I see what what you're doing is good for the organization. That's the risk you're taking.

Stacey:  I'll take it. In September, I got an off-the-record call from Nate who's the chief of staff for the president of the City Council. He told me there was a lot of buzz going around that we were a failing organization. And do you know that we get 80% of our funding through City contracts?

Austin:  Yes, I saw that in the financials.

Stacey:  Cool. You might be the first Board member who has actually ever read the financials.

So the thing is I had already heard complaints from some of the schools we work with. Certain staff not showing up on time for programs. Or not showing up at all. Two staff being disrespectful toward the kids.

I started corrective action but the six staff involved ganged up on me and pushed back hard. They said a lot of very mean things to my face and worse stuff behind my back. So I kind of backed off. I didn't know how to handle something like this.

But when Nate called me, I realized I had to do a whole lot better. I had to solve this right away.

Austin:  And the Board never knew about all this?

Stacey:  That was one of the calls I made to the Chair. I told him I had an emergency issue I needed to talk with him about, but he didn't have the time right then, and he never got back to me. Nothing unusual about that.

Austin:  But he had time to talk to two disgruntled staff?

Stacey:  Apparently so.

Austin:  So then?

Stacey:  I was on my own, but that wasn't working. I called five EDs I know and one of them had an HR strategist he works with who he likes a lot. I called Nellie and she got me on track.

She showed me how to do the correction thing when you have staff ganging up against you. We put them in order and took the easiest ones first and those are the four who have left. They were essentially fired, but we let them submit resignations.

If you want to talk to them you can, but be prepared to have your ears blistered.

Austin:  No, I don't want to talk to anyone who was screwing up the organization.

Stacey:  Now we've got the toughest two to deal with. They're on a correction plan and their deadlines for improvement are in two weeks. I haven't seen signs of improvement so I expect that soon the Board will be hearing that two more have left. But that should be it.

Austin:  This makes me really sad.

Stacey:  Sorry.

Austin:  No, I mean sad that you had to do this on your own.

Stacey:  I've had Nellie. She's so smart. And she rubs off. I've gotten a lot more courageous.

Austin:  I'm really glad you've got Nellie, but you should also have the Board.

Stacey:  Well, it's just about over.

Austin:  Is there anything we could do even at this late date that would make things even a little bit easier for you. I feel really terrible that I didn't know what was going on.

Stacey:  That's okay. We're going to win—as long as the Board doesn't interfere and shut down our plan. Nate is on our side. He's been reversing the buzz. He's been putting the word around that we're getting our act back together.

And the three new staff I've hired so far have been a big hit with the schools.

Austin:  Anything at all that we can do?

Stacey:  It wouldn't hurt for these last two to know that the Board is absolutely behind me. It might help them depart faster and easier. I really don't want them to try to stay after everything they've done. And their attitudes still stink.

Austin:  How about this? I'll call the execs immediately. If the Chair doesn't call me back quickly, I drive over to his house tonight and insist that he talks with me. I'll ask for their permission to come down here to the office and let your staff know that the Board is 100% behind you. I can make one hell of a speech when I'm fired up and I'm fired up.

Stacey:  Well, our staff meeting is at 2 this Friday.

Austin:  Here's me putting that in my calendar right now.

Stacey:  What if the execs don't agree?

Austin:  Then I'll be the main agenda item at the next Board meeting. But my best guess is that it won't come to that. I know two of the execs from community stuff. I have a good rep with them. I think they'll come through when they hear the details. I think they just have their heads up in the ozone.

And no matter what I'll come to your staff meeting. Even if I can't speak for the Board, I can glower, right at those two staff. And I'm told I have a pretty effective glower.

But really, if the execs drag their feet, I'll call through the rest of the Board and get them organized to take a stand.

Stacey:  Thank you. I sure wouldn't mind just even having a witness there on Friday.

Austin:  Listen whatever happens, you can count on me being your advocate.

Stacey:  I like it!

Austin:  And, hey, Stacey...

Stacey:  What?

Austin:  Thanks for this conversation. It's been my wake up call. And now it's going to be the Board's.

An absentee Board in a watchdog/enforcement mindset can be lethal.

Imagine being Stacey. You've worked so hard. But the Board orders you to...

"Stop the turnover. We don't care how. But if anyone else leaves unhappy in the near future, you're in big trouble."

This is not far-fetched. Believe me, Boads have done such things. So now the two problem staff have carte blanche to get away with anything. There's no way you could stop their acting out because you've just been stripped of your leadership authority.

And imagine being Austin. Wouldn't it feel great that you were able to step into a terrible situation and make it so much better.

The Board sent Austin in thinking they had hit an enforcement trigger. And they had, but not in the way they expected.

What they're going to find out is that enforcement is needed, but it's the Board who needs to do better. And that's something good for the members themselves—to learn how to champion instead of harm.

But what if the ED is, in fact, screwing up. Still, as advocates, you would want to find out exactly what's going on. First get an accurate diagnosis, then you can make a smart plan instead of a stupid plan.

Let's say that you talk with the ED and she doesn't know why the turnover is happening. She's as puzzled as you are.

So you decide that together you and the ED have to find out the answer to that question. So you do exit interviews with the people who have left. Or you bring in a consultant who knows how to handle situations like this to do the interviewing for you.

Maybe you find out...

1.  It's just coincidence. Someone went back to school. Someone had to move back home to take care of a mother with cancer. Someone had to move to a new state with a partner who got a promotion in his company. So nothing to worry about.

Or, 2.  Maybe you hear that those staff think the ED is good at her job except she doesn't treat people well. Meaning she never says thank you or gives them appreciation. She finds fault with them a lot. She doesn't seem to know how to build morale so it's a dispiriting place to work, even though people like the work itself.

You find out that she's shocked to hear how she comes across and she's eager to change. So you work out a development plan with her and get her a coach or training or whatever will make the difference.

Or, 3.  You find out she truly and deeply believes in controlling people with fear. She's worked hard to develop that management style. She has no interest whatsoever in changing it. She tells you to keep your nose out of her business.

So now you've got an enforcement trigger. If you don't believe in running your organization on fear, and I would hope that would be true for any social change nonprofit, it's time for a firing.

Working with an ED on a development plan or a correction plan is a complex issue. It calls for a lot of sensitivity and care on the part of the Board. Which is another reason why we want to always, always have people with good character and good hearts and lots of smarts on our nonprofit Boards.



What's the most important thing a Board ever does?
It's not included on the list of 33 governance duties.

It's not something a Board does very often, or at least we hope they don't.

It's not something that usually gets discussed in Board recruitment conversations.

But in terms of making a difference, this, I believe, is the big one. And I bet you've already guessed what it is...

Hiring and firing the executive director.

In the bylaws of most nonprofits this is stated as a Board duty in a single sentence. But it's such a big deal. Seems like it deserves a few paragraphs.

Is there anything a Board does that's more important than...

Finding the right person to lead the organization.

Because the right leader...

Who is passionate about the mission,

Who knows how to get results,

Who knows how to develop staff,

Who knows how to hire top-quality staff,

Is someone who decision by decision makes the organization stronger.

So while I've been saying that it's quite possible for a dedicated ED and staff to run a nonprofit without a Board, when it comes to hiring a new ED or firing a failing ED, that's crunch time. That's when I particularly want every nonprofit to have a stellar Board.

I get it if a Board hates fundraising and doesn't want to do it. There are ways around that. It doesn't have to be a disaster.

But when it comes to hiring or firing the ED, that's the Board's province. They can use consultants or headhunters to help them out. They can take the advice of the staff. But in the end they are the ones charged with the responsibility to recruit the best possible person.

I've seen Boards wing it with the hiring process, doing it fast because "we're very busy people." Maybe they luck out and get a great ED. But maybe they don't. Maybe they choose badly and a great organization turns into a disaster in a matter of months.

So I want to say to Board members, please don't let that happen to you. Think about how it would feel if on your watch you let a nonprofit you care about stumble and fall. Or go under.

It seems to me the real pleasure of serving on a Board is in...

Making a significant and uplifting and lasting difference in the life of the organization.

Knowing that you have played a key role in recruiting the right leader is one of the most satisfying things a Board member could ever experience.

And to EDs I'd like to say...

If you've put your heart and soul into this nonprofit,

If under your leadership it's made big progress,

Don't you want your legacy to continue?

If you don't need a stellar Board for anything but this, this key responsibility for picking your successor, that's reason enough to recruit the best.


Developing leaders
Let's say that a Board hires the very best person in the entire world to lead their nonprofit, still they have to take into account the fact that...

Even the best leaders have their limitations.

And social change work is supremely challenging, even for the very best leaders.

So here's the second most important thing I think a great Board does and that's to...

Support and develop the top leader of the organization, and to

Support the development of leadership throughout the organization.

This is something they can do all the time, not just at the time of transition. Which makes me want to say that leadership support and development, rather than being in second place, is actually tie for the most important thing a Board can do.

And it's probably the trickiest thing to do well.

Check out these two stories:

My Board VP, Tomas, is my mentor. I didn't know this was going to happen when we recruited him, but he really gets me, he's my biggest fan, and he's got such a store of wisdom that I learn something important every time I discuss issues with him.

So I asked him if I could call him with questions, if he would be willing to give me mentoring, kind of off-line from our ED-Board relationship, and his eyes lit up and he's been a godsend.

The Board treasurer is a very pushy woman who's quite taken with herself and she told the Board Chair she wanted to mentor me. He's someone who likes to make nice with everyone, so he said yes.

Now Evangeline comes into the office for an hour meeting every other week, and it's just hell. She doesn't know the organization, she doesn't know our work, and I don't know where she got her ideas about leadership, because if I did actually did those things my staff would mutiny, and I'd mutiny right along with them.

And she's not just "mentoring" me, she's started giving orders. It's like she just got the ED job without having to apply for it. The worst of it is that I have to smile and be nice and make it look like I'm happy working with her when really it makes my stomach hurt.

No, the worst of it is that I have to pretend to actually be implementing the things she tells me to do and that makes me feel all twisted up inside because, you know, I'm not a liar. I hate being forced into deception. There's an explosion coming.

Some people say there's no way a Board member can mentor an ED, it's just too complicated a relationship. But I've seen such mentoring work very well—when the relationship was negotiated in a thoughtful way.

If you're an ED who wants to ask a Board member for mentoring, you can start by asking for an hour of his time to help you think through an issue. See how it goes. Audition him. If it goes well, if he's respectful, and you are sure, sure, sure that he's someone you want to work with for the long term, then you can ask him directly if he'd be willing to be your mentor.

There's something very sweet about naming the relationship and making it official. It's a way of honoring the mentor's contribution.

But you could also just keep asking for his time whenever you want his help. Which means if you stop wanting his help, you don't have to formally change the relationship, you just stop calling.

If you're a Board member who wants to offer mentoring to an ED, remember that mentoring only works if the mentee really, really wants it. It's not something to force on anyone. And you don't want an ED to feel pressured to say yes because as a Board member you're her boss and she wants to keep you happy.

Again, we're talking about negotiating the relationship and such a conversation might sound like this:

Wyatt:  Hi, Keiko. I was remembering what you said the other night about how accounting is not your strong suit. And you seemed really frustrated when you were trying to explain the financial statements to us.

So I thought I'd like to make an offer. If you would like, I'd be willing to take a couple of hours to show you how to read and explain financials. I'm really good at helping non-financial people understand what they need to know so they can make good decisions.

You're really bright and I think you could get this quickly if someone walked you through it and that might help take a bit of the frustration out of your job.

But before you answer, here are three more things I want to say...

1)  I'm a member of your Board and therefore your "boss." So if for any reason you don't want to work with me on this, that's absolutely fine, and I really mean that.

2)  I have a friend Eliza who's also good at teaching financials and if you want to work with her, I'll give you her number.

3)  I understand that even if you want to learn to read financials better, you might not have the time right now. You might have other priorities that have to come first.

So I'm making the offer and I want to ask you to take your time to think about it. And if you want to pursue it, give me a call and I'll be glad to work with you. But it's absolutely okay just to let this drop. You don't even have to call me to tell me no if you decide against this. Just call if you want to do this. I'm a big fan of yours either way.

What do you think?

Keiko:  Wow. Yes, I want to do this. I've got two big grants due by the end of the month, but after that I'll call you and set a time. Thank you so much for thinking of me like this. I tried reading up on accounting, but I'm just not getting it from the books. If you could walk me through it and let me ask my questions along the way and test me to see if I'm really understanding, that would be great.

Or Keiko might say:

I'd really like to talk with your friend. Could you e-mail her and let her know I'll be calling?

Or she might say:

Thank you so much for the offer, and thanks for giving me some time to think about it.

And then when you don't hear back from her because this is not something she wants to do, you're really and truly okay with it because you really meant it when you said this offer was optional and you were her fan no matter what.

So what are some things a Board can do to support leadership development?

You can pay attention to it.

You can talk with the ED about what she and her staff need in terms of development.

You could promote and approve a budget for training.

You could, as a Board, raise a special pot of money each year so the ED and staff could go to trainings or hire consultants or coaches. That would really show them how important you think development is.

You can make a blanket offer, with no pressure: If there's ever anything we know that can be helpful, if you ever want consultation or mentoring from a Board member, please feel free to ask.

You can also keep paying close attention to how your ED is doing and keep checking in with her about what kind of support she needs. Lots of EDs make it look easy because they figure that's part of the job to be the one who is inspiring and rallying everyone else.

But most EDs find the job super challenging, even if they're handling the challenges really well. And most EDs appreciate the offer of support—as long as you are offering with the right attitude.

Which means it matters that...

She can feel it in her bones that you really are her advocate.

She knows that you see her strengths and want her to build on those.

She knows that whatever offers you make are truly in support of her development and not a sneaky corrective plan. (If correction is needed, name it.)

And it might be best to have one or two Board members who have a good relationship with the ED be the point persons on this.

Here are Board members Jaramie and Bonnie talking with Danielle the ED:

Jaramie:  Hey, Danielle, on behalf of the Board, Bonnie and I would like to make an offer and see what you think. One of the things we noticed when we came on the Board two months ago is that you haven't had a formal evaluation done in over three years, and that doesn't seem fair. Everyone says you do such good work, so it seems like you deserve to have that documented and put in your personnel file.

Danielle:  Thank you. Really, thank you. I've been feeling discouraged about that because I've asked five times for an evaluation and the Board says yes but then nothing happens.

Jaramie:  Well, Bonnie and I are committed to fixing that and right away. And there's more. We want to offer to meet with you once a quarter to find out what you need from the Board and to give you informal feedback from the Board.

The two of us would do this as your advocates. We're really impressed with the work you're doing and we want your annual evaluation to be the best it can be.

We're thinking that if we know what you need, we can help the Board figure out how to get you that. Or if you're ever getting mixed messages from the Board, we would go back to them on your behalf and get that fixed.

If any Board members express any concerns about you, we'd want you to know what those were asap instead of letting them fester. We don't think it's fair for people to hear about problems for the first time at their annual evaluation.

And we'd like to work out with you what would be the best kind of ED evaluation to do for this organization. Then we'd do an evaluation with you right away, covering your accomplishments for the past three years. We'd also formalize what objectives you're working on, so you'd know what you're going to be evaluated at the end of the coming fiscal year.

We'd also like to ask the Board to vote to have the evaluation process we agree on to become policy, so you won't be surprised at the end of next year with some new process someone has pulled out of a hat.

This is a lot, but how does it sound? Please tell us any concerns you have. Don't hold back. We really want this to work for you, because we want to support your leadership.

Danielle:  I have to say this takes my breath away. First, that you thought this through in such detail, and second, that you care enough about me to devote your time to supporting me.

Bonnie:  I agreed to join this Board because I care about the mission. But that's not enough for me. I heard so many great things about the kind of leader you are and that's what made me want to say yes. Last week, I found out Jaramie felt the same way.

Danielle:  Wow. It feels so good to hear this. I've never heard of Board members offering this kind of support. I know some EDs like to be left alone...

Bonnie:  We understand if...

Danielle:  But not me. I trust the two of you. And I really want that evaluation. Thank you for jumping on it. I've heard lots of EDs talk about what a nightmare their evaluations were, inaccurate and unfair. So I really appreciate that you want to do it right. And that you want to create a consistent process. And that you want to work with me on creating that process. That feels so affirming.

And I really do think the communication between me as ED and the Board could be a whole lot better. I think it's okay as it is, but why settle for that when we could have something great?

Jaramie:  I like the sound of that!

Bonnie:  And one more thing. What about personal and professional development? Is there anything right off the top that you'd like to ask for on that score?

Danielle:  It's be a really stressful year. We've made big leaps forward with our new grants, but, man, it's been hard.

Bonnie:  So what would help you take care of yourself?

Danielle:  Well, I know I need to do better at delegating. My staff are getting stronger and it's time for me to give them more responsibility. But I'm having a tough time letting go of things. I'm so used to carrying way more than my share of the responsibility. I've been like that all my life.

Bonnie:  I get that. I used to be like that myself. Still am some days. So what do you need around that?

Danielle:  My friend Donna is an ED and she has a coach who she raves about. I'd like to hire him and try him out and see if that helps. And my family has been upset this year that too often I'm  working through the weekend. They want me home more. Maybe she could help me with that, too.

Jaramie:  Do you have a budget for this?

Danielle:  Well, things are tight. Because of the way our funding works almost all of our money is restricted.

Jaramie:  Okay, then here's the deal. It's really so little money we're talking about that Bonnie and I will commit right now to raising the money you need for the coaching. So you can go ahead and make your first appointment. And if we don't raise the money we'll write the check ourselves. But I'm jazzed about raising the money.

Danielle: I can't tell you how good it feels to have such support. But did you ask Bonnie about this?

Bonnie:  Oh, yes. Jaramie and I have been cooking up these ideas together. And we're enjoying being in the kitchen. We really want to see you thrive. We want to keep you here for the long term. It would just be terrible if you burned out and left.

Danielle:  This is not at all what I expected when you called and wanted to meet with me. I thought maybe I was in some kind of trouble. This is amazing. Let's look at our calendars and set the times for our next couple meetings.

Again, great Boards can be incredibly great.

Sometimes I think it's a sign of despair when we come up with schemes to try to get Boards to inch forward, to be just a little bit more relevant and a little bit more responsible.

Inching is not really a lot of fun. Trying to legislate better Boards is not a lot of fun.

If our work is about social change, maybe we can think more deeply and become more ambitious about changing the nature of our Boards. Because after all...

Being advocates for our dedicated leaders, and

Being champions for our social change nonprofits,

That's where the fun is—the serious fun.

And why settle for anything less?


© 2010 Rich Snowdon