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Mary Hiland, PhD

About Mary

Going Deeper with Boards: What’s REALLY Going On?

Nonprofit boards are largely an untapped resource. A bold statement, perhaps, but one supported by recent research. Boards need to evolve as the organizations they lead and serve evolve. The people involved need to decide what aspect of the board needs to be developed or change. Too often the focus is on symptoms – we don’t address issues with boards at the roots. We don’t go deep enough to tackle the underlying causes and thus we miss the chance for greater impact. We need a different perspective on boards so that efforts to be and deliver more can be realized.

On the wall of my office is a list of complaints and concerns that nonprofit staff and board leaders have raised to me in the past ten years (e.g., the board is micromanaging, recruitment is a haphazard or personalized process, board members can’t get the information they need, board members aren’t engaged, they don’t – or won’t – raise money, no one wants to be the board chair). It’s a long list!

After thinking and reflecting on this list, I found that each of those complaints or concerns “fits” into one of three board dimensions: capacity, connection, or culture. Unleashing the full value of boards requires understanding and addressing one or all of them. Since each organization, and each board, is unique, these dimensions need to be considered in context. In addition, each dimension manifests through the people on the board as well as in the processes and activities of the board.


This dimension is the most basic and I find many boards and executives plan board improvements here. Does the board have the right capacity to fulfill its roles and responsibilities and add value? First consider the people. To reference the oft-quoted Jim Collins (Good to Great): Do you have the right people on the bus? Are they in the right seats? It isn’t just a matter of having enough people or having the people who can fill in the gaps in the infamous “matrix” that indicates we need a finance person, for example. Boards do this best when they consciously address the questions: What capacity do we need, given our strategic priorities? What competencies do we need? What is our important work, and do we have the capacity to do it?

The executive director and board chair of nonprofit theatre reported numerous efforts to increase board fundraising. After many discussions with the board about the “type” of people to recruit, they began to explore more deeply why past efforts with people of influence had not produced the results they expected. By going deeper, they came to realize that what they needed on the board was leadership in this area – someone who was confident about where and how to begin with an inexperienced fundraising board. They agreed they needed fundraising leadership more than they needed someone with deep pockets. Recognizing this gap in leadership capacity made all the difference.

Issues of board capacity are not just about people. An effective board has processes in place for getting important work done efficiently. Examples include: new board member recruitment, selection, and orientation; thoughtful meeting agendas; use of committees; board self-assessment; the executive director evaluation process. Does your board have the processes and structures in place to facilitate its important work and fulfill its governance responsibilities?

When everything else is working well, unleashing more value from the board very well may just be a matter of addressing issues of capacity. Many boards pay attention to seeking the right people or developing the right processes. Board value is untapped, though, when the thinking reflected in the following comments prevails:

  • “If the board would just get clear on our roles and responsibilities . . .”
  • “Once we get more people on the board . . . “
  • “The people we need are too busy to attend a lot of meetings.”
  • “Tell us what committees we need . . .”

These comments are often masking underlying issues that go unaddressed. Going deeper brings us to the second dimension: connections.


We often hear the phrase: “It’s all about relationships.” Well, it is. The quality and scope of relationships among board members, between the board and the executive director, and extending in and out between the board and the community make a huge difference for a nonprofit organization. So much about boards can be enhanced by focusing on relationships!

Who is on the board hardly matters if there is not a trusting relationship with that person. All the hopes for the gifts someone is going to bring will be unrealized. The board certainly won’t be tapping into the person’s spheres of influence! Reaping the full benefit and value board members bring requires attention to the quality and scope of connections. It depends on the relationship building competence of individual board members and the interpersonal dynamics of the board as a group. Starting with the people, the board’s impact is influenced by connections in at least the following three ways.

  • The skill set and willingness of each board member to effectively build relationships. I think we assume individuals know how to build relationships. We take that for granted – big mistake! Not everyone is able or willing to build strong interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, we all know people who dismiss the importance of connection, are insecure and self-focused, etc. They can do more harm than good!
  • The strength of the board as a team. While influenced by #1 above, there is the additional dynamic of going from one-on-one to the collective relationships within the group. The quality of the board members connections and sense of identity as a group provides the foundation for other necessary team dynamics: constructive conflict, commitment, accountability, and attention to results. Is your board a group of individual contributors or is your board a team?
  • Board members’ connections to social networks outside the boardroom. Are board members willing to introduce friends, work colleagues, etc. to the mission of your nonprofit? Are they ambassadors externally? The extent and nature of this bridging function of the board makes a big difference in the value the board adds.

Tapping the full potential of the board also requires attention to the board processes for relationship building. Examples are: rules of engagement, agreements for holding each other accountable, structuring time for social exchange and getting to know each other, being purposeful about identifying social networks, and asking board members to link them to your nonprofit.

It is my experience that boards and executives too often look to structure, role clarification, and rules to improve functioning or solve issues. Without exploring underlying relationship dynamics, these structural interventions don’t have lasting impact and may have no impact at all.

For example, the board chair of a youth services agency had worked as a youth counselor herself for many years. The agency was growing and the board needed to evolve with it. Because of her work experience, the board chair frequently asked questions that drew the board into day-to-day operations. Meetings became longer and much less efficient. Things just weren’t getting done that needed the board’s attention. An underlying issue was the weak relationships among the board members, and between the executive director and this board chair. People were uncomfortable raising concerns with the board chair directly and didn’t talk to each other about it either which was the real dynamic that kept the “symptom” of the board getting too involved in day-to-day operations alive. Instead of going deeper and tackling the source of the issue, the board decided to reactivate the executive committee which soon became the platform for the lengthy operational inquiries and discussions. This added a layer of work for both board officers and the executive that was unnecessary. And, it didn’t fix the dynamic at the board meetings.


The third dimension that can be the cause of board symptoms is culture. Like any group or organization, each board has a unique culture that develops over time. For our purposes, the culture of the board is the shared set of assumptions and beliefs that are manifested in its practices. As with the other dimensions, there is a people and a process dynamic within it.

People bring their own world views, their own beliefs, assumptions, and values to everything they do. Building an effective board requires a good match between the board members and the nonprofit’s values. But, there is a lot more than that to understanding how individual board members influence board functioning as a result of their cultural views. Culture, by definition, can be unconscious – it’s just “the way we do things.” Sometimes, to really develop a board or change something that is reducing its effectiveness we need to look at the deeper, underlying cultural factors that are influencing, even driving, what is going on.

Individual assumptions and beliefs that I have seen influence board decisions include:

  • “We will lose continuity and valuable board members if we have term limits.”
  • “We can’t have both a fundraising and a diverse board.”
  • “We need people with money on the board to get money.”
  • “The executive director should not be recruiting new board members – it’s a conflict of interest.”

Sometimes it is important and necessary to surface and discuss underlying assumptions and beliefs in order to move a board forward. Too often boards want to act fast, or are just unaware, and thus only deal with symptoms of underlying cultural issues—they re-emerge eventually.

Board culture is also manifested in board practices – such as traditions and norms. Do board meetings start and end on time? Where do people sit? Does your board celebrate and, if so, how? Does the board assess financial position from with a perspective of scarcity or abundance? How risk averse is your board when considering opportunities or challenges? How are you using technology in the board room? Is it conducive to attracting younger board members?

I joined a board without having observed a board meeting (not a good practice). The first meeting I attended was scheduled for an hour and a half. It was still going two and a half hours later! The bulk of the meeting was taken up in reports by committee chairs who provided detailed descriptions of activities since the last meeting. The culture of this board as manifested in its meeting process was excruciatingly inefficient! But the board seemed oblivious to these kinds of underlying agreements (i.e., it’s okay not to keep to our timeframe or agenda) that kept it from accomplishing its goals.

The next time you get excited about the potential of the board but just can’t seem to see how to move things forward, or, when board members and/or the executive director are frustrated with board performance, consider going deeper to understand the underlying causes. Are the issues the board is struggling with being understood at their roots or are you trying to change things by addressing symptoms? You might do well to ask: What’s really going on?


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