Boards – No Wonder!

The other day, I got this tip from a group that specializes in boards and governance. (I’ve redacted the name of the high-profile organization from whence this VERY long paragraph came. I suggest skimming it – don’t read every word or you won’t get to the good stuff!)

“Addressing noncompliant board members can be a challenge. It is difficult to reprimand veteran board members or ask them to step down. We recommend that boards put certain practices into place to help you prevent and address noncompliance with board policies. All nonprofits should institute term limits to facilitate board renewal. Routinely evaluating individual board members will create opportunities to acknowledge contributions and to discuss problems. Orienting board members to their expectations, and providing these expectations in writing is another proactive measure. Including a process to address noncompliance in these written policies is essential. Having this process in writing will ensure that you will have it when you need it.”

If you are like me, even just skimming this paragraph will make you sad.  Why sad? Because this single paragraph is so filled with sad words it is almost too much to bear. When you read this, is this what you saw?

step down
discuss problems
written policies

With this as their “inspiration,” how can we wonder that boards are not working well?!

If board members were inspired by their board work, we wouldn’t need punitive measures. We wouldn’t need to evaluate their individual performance, and we wouldn’t be using words like “noncompliance” and “reprimand” when talking about these volunteers who donate their time.

Instead, they would love doing their work!

Board members join boards because they care and want to make a difference. Then, in this morass of compliance and policies, we make clear to boards that they have neither the time nor the luxury of discussing how they will make that difference. It is simply not a “board” issue.

And we wonder why boards are disengaged!

Instead, we instruct boards to focus on the “important things” like money and HR demands. Look at any checklist of things a board must focus on, and you will be hard pressed to find much that has to do with holding themselves accountable for making their communities healthy, vibrant, compassionate places to live. What the experts repeatedly tell boards they are accountable for is NOT Community-Driven end results, but legal and operational oversight of the organization’s means.

And we wonder why boards micromanage!

Boards are doing precisely what the governance gurus and all the various standards and best practices have asked them to do. That work is tedious, boring,and has zero to do with why they joined the board in the first place. Talking incessantly about the means, out of context of the only thing that IS inspirational – the end results our communities receive – well, that is just plain dull!

And we wonder why they don’t show up for meetings!

If we want governance to stop being described with the list of words above, it is time we make board work inspiring. It is time we ask boards to hold themselves primarily accountable for the reason board members joined the board in the first place – to make a difference in their community. It is time we put means in their place, within the context of end results, and not INSTEAD OF end results.

If we inspire boards, asking them to govern for what matters most, board members will show up. They will get the job done. And they will address all the issues you couldn’t otherwise force them to do.

And best of all, when boards are working on what matters most, our communities will finally be on their way to becoming the extraordinary places we all want to live.

3 thoughts on “Boards – No Wonder!”

  1. Wonderful assessment! Often, I think, executives are afraid to let boards think too much about the mission, for fear they’ll make their own interpretations and screw things up. Ironically, at the same time, the mission is the only real hook you can have with a board member.
    Salaried leaders of non-profits need to be so much sharper than they generally tend to be. Their challenge is to find a way for the board to plug straight into the mission without short-circuiting the works. It ain’t easy.

  2. Mark and Mary:
    The reason, Mark, a chair might see things this way – and the reason, Mary, you believe it isn’t easy – is because current systems lead boards in this direction. It is where they are told to go.

    If Pollyanna Principle #6 is correct – that individuals will go where systems lead them – then it’s time to create new systems! (PS that’s what we did! This link will take you there: )


Leave a Comment