One Tip – and Only One – for Fixing Dysfunctional Boards

Toy monster eating a crayonI confess that sometimes even this Pollyanna gets fed up.

I don’t get fed up with the same things as most people in this field, though. I get fed up with blame and intolerance. I get fed up with pointing fingers at symptoms, focusing and refocusing on addressing those symptoms, drilling deeper and deeper, unpacking and re-packing – and never addressing the cause of those symptoms because “That would be too hard” or because “That touchy feely big-picture stuff is not practical.”

And while this could be said about the issues our communities face (poverty, illiteracy, crime), nothing makes me as crazy as the amount of symptoms-centered blame that is leveled at boards.

We so accept that level of blame that we don’t even realize how much it has seeped into the everyday assumptions and language of the nonprofit world (and I mean nonprofit – this is deficit thinking, pure as can be).

Dysfunctional Boards
Broken boards
Boards Behaving Badly

Lists of the things Boards should do
Laments about boards not doing the lists of things they should do

Holier-than-thou “experts” talking about boards as if they were errant children needing time out
They won’t
They refuse
They’ll never change

We accept this blame-ridden conversation as the norm.  And I am fed up with that as well.

If every board in the world is a candidate for board development work, we don’t have a board problem. We have a system problem.

We have created a governance system that is impossible to do well, spiraling with minutiae and detail and shoulds and prescriptions and legalese.  We have told boards their job is to lead. And when they try to consider the big picture (which is what leadership is about) they are told, “No, your job is first and foremost to pay attention to the dollars – to legal and operational oversight.”

They join the board because they want to make a difference. We tell them it is not their job to talk about making a difference. Their job is to talk about balance sheets and personnel issues.

They get bored. They stop attending. Or worse, they do the adult equivalent of bored kids shooting spitballs – they nitpick. They micromanage. They do the million and one “acting out” things we blame them for.

Then we consultants get paid big bucks to please-oh-please fix those symptoms.

We train them. We give them manuals and worksheets and agendas.  We teach them to recruit board members – good ones this time – people who will attend, participate. We help them create policies with consequences for failing to attend these meetings that are so horrifically boring that being kicked off is almost a relief.

Except we still have board members who want to make a difference, who still have no opportunity to help make that difference, on or now off the board.

Consultants and other experts blame out of frustration.

There is a path out of that frustration.  And unless you have tried it, please don’t give me your opinion of why you don’t think it will work. Because my 10 years of experience doing precisely this tell me it is the only thing that does work.

Ask them why they don’t attend.
Ask them why they are disengaged.

Then make their meetings interesting.
Make their meetings meaningful.
Make their meetings about things that matter.

Make the first and largest part of their meetings
about creating the future of their community,
and the last and smallest portion
about monitoring the organization’s activity last month.

Give them a report of the past
Give them time for generative discussion about the future.

And then go buy more chairs for your board room. Because they’re going to start showing up.

17 thoughts on “One Tip – and Only One – for Fixing Dysfunctional Boards”

  1. Hildy,
    Yes yes and yes. But (and I feel qualified to say but, becuase we’ve been doing exactly as you say for at least a year now): before you can even get to that point, you have to have the right group of people sitting around the table, and finding the right people is hard. No matter how carefully you communicate (through orientations and conversations and talking and listening) what the mission is, what the job description is, what we hope you as a board member will contribute, it still feels like dumb luck when you find someone who gets it – works well in the group, speaks up, doesn’t try to impose nutty ideas (“I know – you should put rainbow banners up along main street because it would make people feel so good about the town!” – I do not kid.)

    I have someone who is leaving the board after three years. She feels like she wasn’t listened to, and is leaving in frustration. I felt like she kept trying to impose ideas — most recently, she started raising money for a project she feels is important and has tried to push on me/the organization, but that we had good reasons for not taking on. Sure I can just blame her and say good riddance, but why was I not more successful in three years in helping her see that that’s not how we do things?

    Also: yes we have to do a better job listening to them (and asking those questions is a great start) – but in my experience the answer I get from most people who stop showing up is a vague “I’m really busy…my kids take all my time…” – half-truths. If they loved what they were doing and really felt effective, they’d make time. But they don’t know how to say that. IN my experience they think it’s their fault, not mine (I’m the dynamic expert, they’re new, just a volunteer) and they don’t know that things can be changed.

    I am on a campaign to transform the culture of our board once and for all, in part because we have some major, and potentally hugely exciting, challenges ahead, so (as you can see) I am giving these questions a lot of thought!

  2. Jenny:
    Start with this question: “If our mission were 100% successful, what would our community look like?” Then use the questions and processes in The Pollyanna Principles to help guide them to what their role can be in making that happen.

    Most board members join the board because they care. That means you DO have the right people in the room. It’s just a matter of asking them questions that inspire their best selves to be present. In addition to Pollyanna, the series of videos here may provide some of those questions as well.

    Moving from “telling them what their role / tasks are” to “asking them questions that engage them at their best” requires a bit of biting your tongue in the beginning, but I promise it is way more effective in the end.

    So does anyone have questions they love for inviting board members’ best selves to be present in the room? Let’s start a list of what DOES work!!!

  3. As Board President of Elderwise, I adopted Amanda Madorno’s consent agenda which she presented at a United Way Board training; this cuts out up to 30 mins of time spent on discussing the minutae of financial reports, and allows more time for conversations that really matter (we still discuss financial issues, but in a more strategic context).

    I also took the opportunity of a champagne appreciation event for current and past board members to hold an Appreciative Inquiry session – current board members interviewed past board members about what they thought contributed to Elderwise’s success, and what Elderwise would look like if they fell asleep and woke up 20 years later; not only did past board members feel appreciated, it was a nice way to help new board members understand the essence of the organization.

  4. Having the right people in the room, feeling connected to meaningful work that advances the vision and mission of the organization – both are so critical and so often missing in boardrooms.

    I don’t necessarily blame boards. I do blame the traditions and the definitions of governance that have been passed down to them. They know, generally, that they should be focusing on the mission. But they either don’t know what that *really* looks like or they perceive it as the fluffy stuff that wastes their time. They think they need to be action-oriented, and “action” eerily resembles management functions. That, and listening to a lot of reports.

    They also know that they are being held accountable for the bottom line, by the IRS, funders and others who expect regular reporting of evidence. Obviously, I am not discounting those critically important duties of accountability. But they tend to be exaggerated when there’s someone looking over their shoulder, monitoring those functions. What I hear from boards here is not “how can we enhance our commitment to mission (forget vision – that’s totally uncharted territory),” it’s “how can we meet these new 990 requirements?”

    Pollyanna resonates for all of the right reasons. So does the model that Chait, Ryan and Taylor set out in Governance as Leadership. Oh, the power that would be unleashed if these ideas became the norms that defined and inspired governance. But we have a long way to go before we reach that point.

    We keep working, though!

  5. Elia:
    The two items you mention are wonderful tools, once a board has given itself permission to move beyond what is legally required. Consent agendas are tremendously helpful for providing the space for moving to what’s possible (For those unfamiliar with Consent Agendas, here’s a simple explanation )

    Your second item gets to the substance, once the board has the room to maneuver that the Consent Agenda provides. Giving them not only a process for bringing out their potential (the Appreciative Inquiry approach as well as many others that are aspirational in nature), but giving them a personal, comfortable, nurturing (what could be more nurturing than champagne?) environment for that to happen!

    Thank you for sharing that. I’m curious what those two actions have made possible for the board and the organization? If you’re comfortable sharing that, it would be great to see the results!

  6. Hi Hildy,
    Thanks for posting a link to the consent agenda explanation, for others to see. The effect of using a consent agenda has been that we are spending more time discussing strategy for marketing, PR, fundraising, and operational issues; there is also less attention to micro-details which, I believe, has led to more self-confidence for the staff.

    The Appreciative Inquiry exercise with previous board members was an important pre-cursor to a major strategic planning exercise which we embarked on last autumn. The results were very much a part of our review of Elderwise’s mission and vision, to ensure they were still current and appropriate.

  7. Ellia:
    This is terrific! The fun really starts when the board moves beyond the strategic operational discussions, and starts having strategic “making a difference” discussions. Even just 10 minutes of generative discussion as the first item on the agenda can change the board’s focus about everything else!

  8. Debra:
    There is so much in your comment to think about! I’m afraid it will distract me all day as I keep coming back to think about it.

    I think your comment about having the right people in the room is a large factor in “readiness” or as brilliant consultant Kim Tso likes to call it, “ripeness.” Most board members are there because they want to make a difference. So perhaps they are the “right” people, but just not yet ready for the BIG discussion.

    So then, how do we engage that conversation without it seeming irrelevant or fluffy? If we know what a group has the potential to accomplish, do we settle for giving them what they ask for simply because they don’t appear to be “ripe” for a larger conversation – knowing that will maintain systems and traditions we know are ineffective if not downright harmful?

    Or do we figure out what conditions need to be in place so we can have that larger conversation, reverse engineering what it will take to bring them to where they have the potential to be? (A big part of changing the systems is to change all the individual actions that contribute to maintaining those systems!)

    And of course this is reminding me that I need to get back to the “Readiness” post and write Part 2….

    Your last point also intrigues, as it is such a huge piece of what we are doing daily at the Institute. What conditions would need to be in place for the philosophies inherent in The Pollyanna Principles and Governance as Leadership to be the norm? What would it take? If we can identify that, we can get to work on changing those norms!

    Thanks as always for SUCH meaty stuff to chew on!!!!

  9. Replying on the fly, Hildy, but one quick thought re: the how –

    One thing that I love about the Community-Driven Institute and everything you create is that it’s *out there.* Buying the book is great (and definitely recommended – every board member should have the chance to read this critical text), but we don’t have to rely on a random person running across a random book name and pulling out a credit card. The essential elements are already out there, online and in the heads and toolboxes of CDI graduates. The pieces to take us deeper into how to facilitate this work, and how to connect it to the purposes of our community benefit organizations, also exist and are available to share freely.

    This the exception to the rule, in my experience. When I think about (and seek information on) those models and philosophies that have the potential to change the sector, there’s mostly a price tag involved – and it’s not easy to find them.

    More later…

  10. Now, you’ve distracted me. 🙂

    Case studies. Freely available, widely promoted, easily discussed and shared case studies of boards that get it. Share them in print pubs, with state nonprofit associations, on Facebook pages, in conferences, on Twitter – wherever and whenever board leaders can be found and connected.

    Identify and draw upon willing board reps from those success stories in sharing directly – again, at conferences, online (video and audio), in whatever settings nonprofit board members frequent (which is probably not the likely suspects, actually).

    For example, the board I studied offered both an ultimate case and has several fantastic members who can speak credibly and convincingly about their successful mission focus amidst the inevitable challenges.

  11. Great point Debra – the stories that model change, encourage and inspire can make a difference. It is a concrete way to discuss new ideas within a safe context (it isn’t about US)

  12. June 7, 2010


    Can I say again how much I truly respect you?

    Your ability to drill down to and focus on the presumptions that under-gird the conversations and not just the conversations themselves, is such a breath of fresh-air – still.

    When we move from the belief that “finding the right people is hard” to:

    – Yes, I acknowledge that that has been my experience so far

    – I equally acknowledge that my experience has been a result of what I thought or believed before, and choices I made and experiences I had before,

    – I have the opportunity to adjust what I’m thinking and feeling now on a go forward basis to create a new experience

    – And, I now get to choose another possible perception that we “DO” have the right people in the room by virtue that they committed to us in the first place,

    is HUGE.

    Debra makes a great point when she talks about our definition of “action” or “taking action”.

    Often it has come from a motivation of “I’m just going to MAKE this happen if it kills me” or from the “telling” place – i.e. who/what we are, and if we’re “lucky” someone will “get me” or “get it”.

    When Pollyanna simply encourages us just to ask more and more questions. Not only about the highest good for our communities and our world, but in my interpretation, how we want to participate in that…

    Hildy, you gave us an invitation earlier:
    “So does anyone have questions they love for inviting board members’ best selves to be present in the room? Let’s start a list of what DOES work!!!”

    I like to ask:
    “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”
    “What do you think is the best thing about being you?”
    “What do you believe is your purpose or your contribution to the world?”
    “What kind of difference do you want to make?”
    “What do you do well, and how do you want to use that toward the highest good you can possibly imagine?”

    Most say, when I ask these questions, that I’m looking for someone to share my vision, or for someone who has the potential to share my vision.

    I as gently as I can, adjust their language and say “No, not really… what I’m attracting are individuals who have their own visions, and might be curious to explore the possibilities and the alignments of both of our visions… together.”

    It seems that those kinds of conversations are bringing me the most amazing people, and who are committing in waves.

    Perhaps these questions are giving others the permission to not only move “beyond” themselves, but also to move “within” themselves, to “get it” – whatever “it” is, for themselves in the context of something bigger than…

    To me, that is when the “readiness” or “ripeness” concept falls away.

    Then rather, it is about what I call a “fluency” which, like a rainbow where you’re not sure where one color ends and another begins, allows individuals to find their own willingness to experiment and practice new ways of being in the name of growth and inspiring that best self in themselves and others.

    Perhaps then we will truly be able to embody and model a start to get away from blaming boards or traditions, and move toward releasing blame entirely.

    In Spirit,
    Trae Ashlie-Garen
    Belief Re-patterning™ Practitioner

  13. Good point, Nancy. It’s not about us, but we certainly can see us – or the us we aspire to be – in their (in this case, positive) stories! Peer credibility infused, too.

    Oh, I love how this conversation is unfolding. It appears that, once again, Hildy has hit on something important.

  14. Ooh, this long series of replies is so juicy. I keep coming back to check it and there’s more all the time.

    What I appreciate here is the willingness to question rather than pontificate. Staff and consultants who work with boards rarely have an appreciative, respectful and collegial attitude towards them. They seem them as needing to be “managed”, “trained”, and “taught” to “step up “. (These are direct quotes from other people’s blogs I found in the past two days.) 

    There is an undercurrent of anger towards the board that is allowed to flourish freely in most writing about them these days. I so agree with Hildy that we need to reassess this. It’s an unhealthy thing to wallow in, when meanwhile the naughty children board members, as Hildy puts it, are volunteers working on the same things we believe in.

    As a former psychologist, I’d say we should be looking to ourselves and asking why dealing with the board makes so many of us angry and disrespectful? What are these feelings really about? 

    And perhaps it is time for staff to ask, “What is it about us and our way if doing things that we have so much trouble dealing with the board?” and “What are we doing wrong?” instead of focusing on what the board isn’t doing. I noticed a long time ago that in my marriage, if I focus on what I can change about myself rather than what my husband ought to be doing, a lot more gets accomplished. (Okay – still working on it… My husband might be surprised to hear my lofty prouncement, but the spirit is there.) You create the future when you focus on what you can change about yourself, rather than whining about what the other side is not doing.


  15. Question: 5 years from now, if you ask anyone in the community what they know about xyz organization, what do you want them to say? This gets the juices flowing, because it’s not just what they want the organization to be, it’s also saying that everyone else has to know this too — it’s been done and articulated and communicated.

    Next question: how do we make that happen?


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