1. Get what you need, for real

The problem of Boards is the elephant in our sector.

We don't like to talk about just how bad things really are...

How irrelevant and neglectful most Boards are, and

How abusive some are.

So instead of giving you the typical advice about Boards, which I think often does not go far enough given how challenging Boards can be, I'm going to offer unconventional, even radical strategies. Please take what you want and toss the rest.

Let's begin by grounding ourselves in reality. Please know that if you're unhappy with your Board, you're not alone...

My Board operates in one mode: critical parent.

I get tired of stroking their egos so they won't hurt us.

Each one of these people is super effective in their professional lives. That's why we went after them in the first place. But put them together in the Board room and it's like somebody pumped in goofy gas.

I thought they were supposed to be the wind under our wings, but they're a drag chute. Because of them we never achieve liftoff.

I recruited this guy. I'm the one who put him on the Board. And now he treats me like he's the Lord of the Manor and I'm his servant. He wants coffee, he wants donuts, he wants reports. But he can't even see me.

This society woman took over as Chair and now our nonprofit is her personal toy.

I can't tell you how demoralizing they are. The best thing we could do in terms of capacity building would be to get rid of the Board.

Their decisions run the full gamut from whim to caprice.

They're like a lump of dough without the spirit. You knead them and knead them and...nothing.

And it's not just EDs who are distressed. Listen to these Board members...

My time is precious. I'm just throwing it away here.

There's no plot to our Board meetings. We go around in circles.

I know how to make a difference. I know how to get results. I've built three companies. But here, I can't find any way to do anything that matters.

It's like the ED is scared of us and hiding stuff from us. I don't know what happened to her with past Boards, but it must have been pretty bad.

I'm the only one who does anything. We've got thirteen Board members, but it all falls on me. So I've decided to quit. I just haven't figured out how I'm going to tell the ED yet. She counts on me. I know it's going to be a blow.

Why is it so hard to make a nonprofit Board work? There are inherent problems in the very structure of Boards...

The Board has the ultimate authority for making decisions, but Board members are typically the people who know the least about the organization and what it needs.

Board members are often essentially strangers to each other. They might not ever have a single conscious conversation about how to work best together. They spend so little time together that it's hard to develop the solid working relationships needed to create a coherent team.

Depending on their history, or rather lack of it, with the organization, members may not feel they have a lot at stake in the decisions they're making.

Board Chairs are often reluctant to hold members accountable because: "They're busy people, and I'm not their boss, and besides we're all volunteers."

These are some tough odds, so it's no wonder that achieving a high level of performance is difficult. In spite of that, it's not all bad news.

There are some very happy EDs...

Without our Board we wouldn't have made it through the last three years. We've done such big things, but there's no way the staff could have done them alone.

I'm not going to tell you about my Board members because then you'll want to steal them and they're mine, all mine!

We don't think of our Board as the Board. We think of them as Maria and Hector and Graciella and Jose and Elana and Pete and every one of them is a godsend.

And there are some very happy Board members...

Apart from my family, this Board service is the best part of my life.

I don't get to do anything half as meaningful at work.

I've found kindred spirits here. I'm going to be friends with some of these people for years if not for the rest of my life.

I feel in snych with the ED. It's like when I used to play basketball and five of us were in the zone together driving for the score. He doesn't talk feelings a lot, so when he told me how much I matter to him, I knew that was a big deal. I'm in this for the long term.

At work I'm behind the scenes and invisible. Here people see me. They need me. When I get fired up, they get fired up. Here I'm a leader.

On these pages I'm going to talk about what I think can help a Board do well. And I think that's worth trying for because...

Great Boards can be incredibly great.

But I want to add a caution. Please don't try to create the "perfect" Board. I say that because I think the Board structure is not perfectible.

In other words, please steer clear of the...

Pretty Board Syndrome.

You can put together a picture perfect Board, with all the right rules and committees, with beautiful bylaws, with every "t" crossed and "i" dotted, a Board that gets an A+ on paper...

But still doesn't contribute to the mission.

I don't think focusing on structure and governance is the primary answer to our Board problems.

Governance is important. Yet it's such a small part of what nonprofits need from their Boards.

What they need most is champions. That means help. They need people who are fired up, people with an activist orientation who are eager to get things done on behalf of the mission. I think this is especially true for social change and social justice organizations.

Of course it's important that Boards have a conscious, disciplined structure for their meetings and their work, especially because they have so little time to develop the deeper kinds of working relationships that ongoing teams can develop. But still, structure comes second.

There's an awful lot of attention put on structure and governance these days and sometimes I think that's a substitute for the much harder conversations we need to be having...

When we're recruiting Board members, we need to have forthright and direct conversations with them about exactly what they are going to contribute if they join the Board.

Then once they're on the Board we need to keep having forthright and direct conversations with them about the contributions they actually are making—or not making.

So much gets left unspoken with Boards. And that's the source of so much disappointment and trouble. But of course being straightforward with each other is...

Relationship work.

And relationship work is...


No wonder people put it off or avoid it altogether. But I think that's where we've got to start.

When it comes to Boards, there are no quick fixes. So on these Board pages I'm going to be talking about the gutsy fixes, the ones that are labor intensive, but which reward you for your work.

In the best of all possible worlds, the Board itself would solve its problems on its own. But that mostly doesn't happen. And if the Board is not up to speed, then I believe the ED has every right to do what she can to fix what's wrong.

And there's a lot that EDs can do. You do not have to sit around and wait and hope and wait some more, feeling helpless while you wait. I have some examples of EDs taking charge of their Board situations on a separate page.

And that's why I'll be talking here as if you have some power over shaping your Board and moving it forward.

But even more importantly, even though not every strategy I present here will be directly applicable to your situation right now, I hope that all these ideas together will help you think creatively and come up with new strategies that will be applicable.

For example, here's an unconventional idea. I like to advise EDs...

Either have a Board that meets your needs, really and truly meets them...

Or cut back to a minimal Board.

Don't mess around with anything in between.

What do I mean by a minimal Board?

Say for example that in your state the law requires you to have a minimum of three Board members. That could be you and two loyal friends. And then you don't have any Board troubles to deal with anymore.

Now I'm not recommending this as the first choice. I recommend having a stellar Board that gives you everything you want from a Board.

But if you're not ready to go there yet, if you've got too many other fish to fry right now, if you're doing a turn around of your organization and you don't have the bandwith for Board development, then there's nothing wrong with a minimalist Board, a nub, a bud that you can bring to full blossom later.

What's the problem with something in between like a quiescent, do-nothing Board?

Sometimes EDs feel hopeless about the whole idea of Boards, so they're happy to have a Board that rubber stamps their decisions...

They're no help but they're no trouble. They come to the monthly meetings, listen to reports, and go home content. So that's one less thing for me to worry about.

I understand how tempting it is to settle for a neutral Board. Really tempting. But what happens if the members bring just one bully onto the Board? Suddenly you can have hell to pay, because the bully can easily take over. He can intimidate the passive Board members, he can start speaking for them, he can give you orders in the name of the whole Board and no one will contradict him.

So one person with his own agenda could easily take control of your nonprofit in a couple months. And the mission and even the most basic kind of common sense can get lost in the process.

I once watched a Board member propose cutting out the organization's main program which brought in all the revenue. He wanted to triple the size of the program that every funder had already said they weren't interested in and would never support.

But this domineering Board member liked that program. He liked to volunteer in it and didn't care about anything else. When he proposed the vote, without a single idea of how to keep the organization alive, not one Board member objected. It was the ED who had to put a stop to it.

That's an extreme example, but I want illustrate as vividly as I can just how dangerous it can be to get the wrong people on your Board.

I also know of a situation where a guy got himself recruited onto a Board then tried to take one of their best programs over to another nonprofit where he was also on the Board and where his real commitment was. Talk about playing dirty.

And if those examples are not freaky enough, try this:

Have you ever heard of someone getting on a nonprofit Board in order to take the EDs job? They dominate the other members, drive the ED out, and then appoint themselves to the position.

It doesn't happen often, but it does happen, and it can be heartbreaking. Especially where an ED or founder has invested ten years of her life in building an organization, and now when the funding is solid and the reputation soaring, someone who's contributed nothing comes in and steals it from her.

I've seen lots of EDs working really hard to prop up a Board that was doing absolutely nothing for them, raising no money and never having a helpful thought about the program. I've seen EDs putting up with abuse because they didn't know what else to do.

But if either of those things is going on, then why have a Board? Why use up your time struggling without any reward? Why suffer or get hurt? Why not do what you can to drive your Board down to the legal minimum and be done with it?


The right people
Now, let's say instead of going for the minimum, you decide to build a great Board, where do you start? The key is to...

Get the right people.

And if you do that, then so many of the typical Board problems disappear. Really, they just disappear.

So the first question to ask is one that's deceptively simple...

Who do we need?

Notice the who question opens the door to relationship work. And sometimes people find it easier to ask other things instead...

What should we do?

Are there ten easy steps?

Is there an expert who can give us a template that will make this quick and easy?

There are indeed experts with templates. And some of these experts are adamant that there's only one right model for a nonprofit Board—their model.

Forget that there are over a million nonprofits in the United States.

Forget that they range from giant national organizations to small volunteer operations.

Forget that some are focused on services and some on advocacy.

Forget that every organization has its own unique personality.

There are experts who will gladly tell you...

How many members you should have on your Board.

How often you should meet.

How you should run your meetings.

How many committees you should have.

How the nominating committee should work.

How your term limits should be set.

Lots and lots of shoulds, all without asking even one question about who you are, what your mission is, and what your nonprofit needs.

I think if you start with shoulds you end with trouble.

It's not a matter of chance that Board X is trouble and Board Y is a delight. It's not like there's a lottery going on and some nonprofits are just lucky when it comes to picking Board members.

The success or failure of your Board is determined by the discipline that's behind the choices you make.

And that discipline begins with honoring what's at stake. Remember, your Board has the legal power to...

Change your mission in a single meeting.

Give away your favorite program to another nonprofit.

Rewrite your budget.

Fire the executive director, even one who is outstanding.

Kill the morale of the organization.

Kill the organization itself.

So choosing the right people for the Board is...

A matter of life and death for your organization.

I've seen EDs and Board Chairs be quite casual about putting people on their Board and it freaks me out.

Maybe they hear a couple good things about somebody in the community, so they meet with him and have a polite 20-minute conversation and he seems nice enough so they get him voted in. Suddenly this person who is really an unknown factor and a total stranger to the organization is a top decision maker.

I've seen nonprofits spend more time interviewing a temporary receptionist than a prospective Board member.

I understand how tempting it is to hope that picking the right model of Board governance will take care of all your Board problems. It would be so nice if there were one simple structural cure-all and we didn't have to talk and negotiate and do relationship work.

But developing a great Board is in fact relationship work, not technical work, and the truth is...

The right model can't save you from the wrong people.

It doesn't matter how perfect it is in theory, a model cannot protect you from people who are acting irresponsibly. You can't legislate Board success with structures and rules.

What matters most is that you...

Get the right people on your Board to begin with.

What do I mean when I say "the right people"? I mean...

People who get the mission in their bones.

People who have personal maturity. Which has nothing to do with age.

People who care about what other people need—like you and your staff.

People who have emotional and social intelligence. They know how to work effectively as part of a team. They treat people with respect, know how to communicate directly and with compassion, and never engage in bullying.

Given all the horror stories about just how bad Boards can be when they go bad, there's a temptation to put a lot of rules in place for protection. But that means your organization is running on fear.

If, instead, you institute a rigorous system for recruiting Board members who are dedicated to mission discipline then you won't have to be afraid.

And if you develop a vigorous Board culture, based solidly on mission discipline, then, again, you won't have to be afraid.

Now I want to be clear, when people work together in groups, structure is a good thing. But there are two ways of getting it...

Rules based on shoulds.

Culture based on needs.

Let's not have structure for structure's sake. We can do so much better than that. Let's not adopt a model because an expert who knows nothing about us told us we should. Let's make our structure serve our nonprofit, not the other way around.

Let's put mission first and people first and culture first and structure second.


Zero-based Board building
You know what zero-based budgeting is. Every year you zero out every line and rebuild the budget from scratch. You have to justify to yourself each program and each expense.

You can do the same thing with Boards. You start with the minimum number your state lets you get away with and then justify, really justify, each and every person you decide to add on after that. 

Here's a simple perspective I like to recommend:

A tiny Board of true supporters is always better than a big Board of trouble.

I've seen nonprofits look at their by-laws and realize that they're supposed to have a minimum of 11 Board members and right now they only have five. So they go on a drive to get butts into seats. But by itself, seat filling is mission killing.

I recommend the discipline of always asking...

"Why do we need another Board member? Is this particular person someone we're sure we need? Is this someone who knocks our socks off? Is this someone who we're so thrilled with we'd do just about anything to get them on our Board?"

And most importantly:

"Is this someone we trust to hold the life of our organization in his hands?"

Now let's look at situations where a very small Board is exactly what the mission calls for.


"I just need protection."
Say a group of you put together an organization where you work with teens to develop short plays about gangs and violence that they perform in high schools. You have a special way of doing this work. It's taken you a good while to develop your recipe for success, but you've got it.

The teen actors love it, the teens they perform for shout and stomp after each performance. The teachers see behavior change because of the plays.

And the group of you who were the founders, and who are now the staff, do just fine raising money on your own. You don't need help with that.

In this situation, I would want you to have artistic control.

I would want you to be able to pick a small Board of people who totally get what you're doing and why you need to be left alone to do it your way.

I would not want you to ever have to put up with a Board member who decides that he knows best and hammers you to include a moralizing lecture before each play, which of course would instantly kill the spirit and effect of your work.

Let's take another example. Say you're the ED of an organization that does programs on unlearning white racism. You have lots of fans, but you also have some serious opponents, which is not surprising given how emotional and treacherous the topic of racism is.

You and your staff are geniuses at fundraising. Your program is working really well. And it gets better and better because you have a system for continuing to develop it. You could actually get along fine without a Board.

But there is one thing a Board could do for you that you really need—give you protection.

In that case, I'd want you to have a Board that does exactly that. When you get attacked on hate radio, and later the host calls your Board Chair and says she should shut you down, your Chair will tell him, "Our staff is doing exactly what we want them to be doing. We stand by them 100%. And by the way, thanks for the publicity."

And I would want your Board to know that doing that one thing, giving you protection, is enough. Having the guts to stand with you is enough. Actually it's a remarkable blessing. Just think how it would feel to have a Board that let itself be intimidated and ordered you to water down your program.


"I need the freedom to lead."
Let's say you have done well in your professional life and you have enough money to run your own foundation and you have your own strategy for funding social change that you want to test.

Specifically, you want to support up-and-coming young leaders. You're quite capable of finding them yourself. You don't need RFPs to make your grants or a committee to make your decisions for you.

You find a young leader who impresses you and you write her a check. It's that simple. There are no restrictions. You don't care about service units. You want her to tear loose, follow her passion, use her strategic smarts, try things, and create new ways of leading social change.

If this is what you are called to, then I'd want you to be able to pick a small Board of loyal fans who would back you up in this experiment. I would not want you to have some kind of broadly representative Board that would veer off course and start fighting with you about funding conventional crisis services when you want to fund new leadership.


Next let's go beyond the very small....

"I need champions."
Let's say you've got dedicated staff, a mature program, and all your systems are running smoothly, but your passion is to reach more kids and families. To do that, you'll have to raise more money.

So what you need and all you need are champions, and more than just a few. You want a strong group of people who will stand by you and work with you and go out and ask for money. Actually go out and ask.

"We just need help. That's all we need. We don't need a Board that burdens the organization with more bureaucracy. We don't need to struggle with personalities. We don't need to debate academic theories of governance. We don't need to build a beautiful committee system while our fundraising dies. We don't need people fighting with us who have no idea what our work really is."


Finally, let's step all the way up...

"I need an active, full-service Board."
Let's say you're running a multi-service agency that gets city funding to provide programs for people who are homeless, or struggling with mental illness, or need vocational training, or all three.

You want a Board that represents stakeholders from throughout the community. You want a large Board. You want clients and former clients at the table. You want people connected to money. You want people who can keep a good relationship going with the mayor and city council. You want the whole smorgasbord of things a Board can give you.

And you want them to have systems in place for everything—meetings, fundraising, policy development, strategic planning.

But even though you develop a large Board with elaborate systems, you're still doing zero-based Board building. You're matching your Board model and members to exactly what you need for your mission and your local situation.

You might even find that one of the one-size-fits all templates works perfectly for you, so that's what you adopt.


"I need a Board that makes all the major policy and strategy decisions."
Say you and a couple friends have started a nonprofit that will speak and act on behalf of the community where you live. And you decide that its mission is not just to improve the community but to build democracy at the grassroots.

So you recruit Board members who are thoroughly representative of the community, all the diversities and differences. You develop a meeting structure so all opinions can be expressed but in the context that the overall welfare of the community comes first.

You help the Board create a way of working together so they don't turn into a gridlocked, in-fighting mess like so many attempts at democracy do.

From then on, you move into the background. The Board leads and you as the staff follow. The Board makes all the key decisions, because the whole point of this nonprofit is for the community to organize and guide itself, to master empowerment instead of being passive recipients of services.


Who decides?
I want to come back to this question again, because it's so important. You may have noticed that even though this page is about Boards, I haven't been addressing Board members. I've been addressing EDs.

If you pick a nonprofit at random, the chances are much better that it will have a dedicated ED and a so-so Board rather than the other way around.

It's much more likely that the ED and her staff are the ones who actually know how to do the work and lead the organization.

Of course there are great Boards with failing EDs. But I'll address that situation on a separate page about governance.

I believe that if the Board is not operating in accord with mission discipline, if it's neglectful or abusive, then the ED gets to step in and take action and transform the Board as needed so it works for the mission instead of against it.

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. Some people insist that the Board must make all the key decisions no matter what.

There are some experts who say the nonprofit sector currently has it backwards...

EDs have become leaders and they should only be managers.

Boards have become managers and they should be the leaders.

First, let me say again what I said earlier about different strokes for different nonprofits. Some nonprofits need their Board to make all the key decisions because that's essential to their mission. But others don't need this.

Second, I'm never happy with even the implied assumption that managers are in any way less than leaders, like leaders are the stars and managers are the drudges.

Great managers are people who have a talent for calling forth greatness from their staff. Do we need this? Yes we do.

If we want our social-change nonprofits and movements to grow in strength, we absolutely need effective managers who love developing the strength of their staff.

When it comes to leading and managing, I think we want these two functions to be in partnership with one another. One is not better than the other. One does not lord it over the other. In fact, personally I think of managing as a type of leading.

And in many nonprofits, EDs and program directors are doing both at the same time.

Third, what I hear in the comments of the experts I'm talking about is not actually about the difference between leaders and managers.

What I think they might be saying is this:

Boards are employers so EDs should be employees. The Board gives the orders. The ED and her staff should carry out the orders.

And I think this is starting from the wrong end of things. Take a look at the history that's behind so many nonprofits. Someone sees a problem and decides to take action. So she gathers some kindred spirits and they form a nonprofit. And then they go shopping for a Board because nonprofit law says they have to have one.

Yes, there are some situations where a group of people gather together as a Board of Directors and then go hire an ED.

But look at how many of our EDs and staff are the true leaders of our organizations, while the Board is along for the ride like the caboose at the end of the train, there but not really necessary.

Do we really want to insist that all Boards should make all the big decisions and every founder and ED and program director and activist on staff are only employees there to carry out orders?

Do we want our sector to become a system of mass downward transformation—turning leaders into order takers?

Can we afford to lose even one leader that way, let alone a generation?

And what do we see when we look at the current generation of emerging and emerged leaders? So many of them are very serious about leading. They refuse to put themselves on the burnout track. They are refusing to do the sacrificial-savior thing. They want to be leaders instead and they know the difference.

Given that, why would they ever agree to take orders? And take them from the people in the organization who know the least about what's going on.

Dumbing down leadership is a...

Quick way to kill social change work.

We need leaders. All kinds at all levels.

Social change work is not really about service units. Service units are part of it, for sure, but there is much more. Our work is about inspiring our communities and our nation to make fundamental changes. It's a way of life. And it's...

A leadership way of life.

In our organizations we need all of us, EDs, managers, front-line activists, and Board members, every single one, working together to show our communities that there is a happier and healthier way to live than the status quo.

That means we need Board members who believe in developing, supporting, and championing leaders.

We need Board members who understand that leadership is a whole that's greater than the sum of the parts, something transcendent in the organization, and that we want everyone to participate in it and contribute their natural talents and best abilities to it. And that...

A social change ED is a leader of leaders.

We need Board members who understand that just because one person steps into leadership that doesn't mean everyone else steps back. Social-change leadership means that we're all stepping forward together. We're helping each other become stronger and more capable at rallying our communities to create a better tomorrow.


© 2008 Rich Snowdon