Mary Hiland, PhD
Agreements on Board Accountability: Does Your Board Have Any?
Have you ever heard nonprofit leaders say that they had found people who matched their criteria for new board members but that, once they got on the board, the recruited board members were not engaged or didn’t fulfill the basic expectations communicated when they were elected? Not a rare occurrence, unfortunately!
An important element of board culture is the agreements boards have about how to hold each other accountable. My experience is that most boards don’t have these agreements. When there is a clear need to do something about a disengaged (at best) or disruptive (at worst) board member, what happens? Avoidance, procrastination....
No one wants to confront someone who is not fulfilling commitments. Discussing this in advance of a problem arising is an opportunity to create an objective process and avoid personalizing the board’s response when a challenge with a specific board member occurs. In my experience, the default is that board members look to the board chair to solve the problem. Sometimes that can work but an agreed-upon accountability process—developed by the board as a whole before having to deal with a specific individual—works so much better. I don’t mean that the board chair is not ultimately involved in implementing that process, but rather the chair is empowered by the board’s agreement on what the steps should be. It is also a good idea for the governance committee to define its role in the accountability process. This shares the burden among board members—and it is a burden.
Taking ownership of the process gives board members an important tool for promoting teamwork, supporting each other when problems develop, and creating a board culture of accountability that promotes effectiveness. Each nonprofit board is unique; each board needs to develop its own process. To put a good accountability process in place, the board needs to carve out time on the agenda for the discussion. This is particularly important because of the great benefit that comes from the conversation as well as the participation to achieve everyone’s buy-in. It can help if you have the luxury of having an outside facilitator assisting with this—maybe at a board retreat. But don’t put it off.
Before getting into the details of designing and agreeing on the accountability process, board members need to establish some basic ground rules—agreements that underlie the accountability process. Here’s a sample of those:
- Define assignments and expectations clearly, including deadlines.
- Clarify priorities. If there are several expectations of any one person or committee, it is important to clarify with each other the priorities of those expectations.
- Be mindful and straightforward in identifying the level of capacity (i.e., time and talent) needed to meet expectations. Board members should be specific in communicating the limits of their capacity.
- Communicate proactively. While it is not okay to miss deadlines, if board members recognize that they are not going to be able to meet a commitment or deadline, communicate with an appropriate other board member (e.g., committee chair) as soon as possible. Explore options and be sure the key people who need to be involved and those who can help are in the loop.
- Ask for help if/when needed.
- Assume good intentions; use good judgment.
With ground rules in place, board members are ready to define the actions steps that will work for them. Consider beginning with a question such as, “What should we do when one of us doesn’t meet commitments?”
Below are some ideas. But, again, it is very important for each board to discuss this and create its own. The real value is in the process and reaching the agreements.
- If someone has not met a commitment or followed through on whatever the person is accountable for as perceived by board members, the first step is for another board member (preferably someone directly involved such as a committee chair) to call and give a gentle reminder. Inquire about what is going on. Explore the reasons and options going forward. Ask what help is needed. Be clear about expectations and commitments going forward.
- If the problem continues and the person again does not meet expectations as agreed, make another inquiry as in step one. In other words, have a second conversation.
- If the problem continues, one of the following options may be followed, depending on the issue and experience with this board member:
- Consult with the relevant board committee chair, if not already involved.
- Consult with the board chair. Discuss the matter in an executive session of the board.
- Agree on an action plan.
- Implement the action plan, which commonly would involve the board chair having a conversation with the offending board member, giving the person a “last chance” to tell the story and commit to an agreed-upon course of action.
- If the problem persists, follow the board-member termination process as stated in the bylaws.
Developing an accountability process can be challenging but, I would argue, not as challenging as dealing with an accountability problem after the fact. Talk about it!
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