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Hildy Gottlieb

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Organizational Stagnation: There IS a Way Out!

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of this cycle?

  1.  We are a small, poor NonProfit.  No one good will want to sit on our board.  So we will take who we can get.
  2. Once those people are on the board, we can’t demand much of them, because they are just volunteers.  We can’t ask them for a letter of commitment, for example, or require that they be at meetings, because they are busy people.  And we certainly would never demand that they read their board materials and be prepared before meetings!
  3. We are having board problems.  Many board members don’t show up for meetings. When they do show up, they usually just do what staff asks of them, but then sometimes they micromanage like crazy, picking apart the dumbest things on the budget.  And we know they should be donating to the organization, but we can’t ask them to do that - we wouldn’t feel right (after all, they’re already giving their time).  And when we do ask them to donate, they tell us they shouldn’t have to.
  4. We’re losing a lot of our board members.  Sometimes we can’t even get a quorum.  Where can we recruit that we can get good board members this time?
  5. We are a small, poor NonProfit. No one good will want to sit on our board.  So we will take who we can get.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.  That should make you feel better.  And there is a solution.  That should make you feel better, too.

It’s not an easy solution, but it’s rewarding.  And boards who take the plunge and go for this solution are virtually always happy they did.

That plunge includes 2 big steps.

  1. The board must relearn what it means to be a board, and relearn what their job is within that role.
  2. They must adopt a strong recruitment and orientation process, replacing the “woe is me” approach with an approach that will strengthen the organization’s ability to do great things.

What it Means to Be a Board

The board is at the top of your organizational chart.  They are ultimately responsible and accountable for everything the organization does and doesn't do.  They are responsible for providing benefit to the community.  They are responsible for monitoring the CEO.  They are responsible for determining what is acceptable and/or unacceptable behavior at the organization.  They are responsible for ensuring that there are adequate funds to provide that benefit to the community.  And etc.  In all these areas and more, the ultimate buck stops with the board.

There is no more important position in the organization than to sit on the board.  We aren't used to thinking of boards like that, but look at the top of that organizational chart.  Look at the bylaws.  Look at your state's law - in the eyes of the state (and the IRS) the organization IS the board.  The board has the prerogative to hire staff or not, but the board is the permanence of the organization - the enduring part.

This is not something to be taken lightly.  It is also not the part of the job most boards spend ANY time on!  Most boards spend their time reviewing things that have already happened - staff reports, financial reports, committee reports.  Most boards spend little time on the area they are chiefly accountable for - providing benefit to the community.

There are lots of different ways to learn HOW to do the job of the board (and many of them are highlighted in other issues of Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review).  There are small things, like requiring boards to attend meetings and be prepared for those meetings.  And there are big things, like a full scale retooling of all the board’s processes.

But the first step is acknowledging that the board’s job is NOT to review what staff has done, and it’s NOT to spend 30 minutes arguing over a line item that comprises less than 1% of the annual budget.
The primary job of the board is accountability.  And if they do that job well, they are doing the whole job.

Recruitment and Orientation

Once your board is focused on ultimate accountability, the next step is to recruit good people to the board.  Ironically, boards have spent so much time coddling their boards with words like “they’re just volunteers, we can’t ask them to do that,” that we have failed to realize a critical error in that thinking:  A board that is doing its job well is more likely to be excited about that job.  And a board that is jazzed about the job is the best recruiting tool of all!

And so we need to have a process for finding those board members who want to do this job.  We need a process that allows the best candidates to surface, rather than resigning ourselves to taking what we can get.  And unfortunately, in many cases, organizations have better processes for recruiting the janitor than they do for recruiting the folks who are ultimately accountable for the success or failure of the organization!

A recruitment process should mirror the processes we are so used to with employees.  First we determine what qualities we are seeking.  We create a job description.  We advertise the position, use word of mouth, see if there are already good candidates in our midst.  We look for a pool of people as applicants, not just accepting the first one who says “yes.”  We have them fill out applications.  We interview prospects.  We check their references.

These are all the things we do when hiring employees.  These are also the things a good organization does to recruit its board.

And then, last but certainly not least, we train them.  And in strong organizations, that training is ongoing, just as it is with employees.  Board members should learn all they can about the organization itself.  They should have ongoing training about their job as board member.  And they must be trained to understand the financials, as so many of their decisions will have something to do with money.

The End Result

The board is the least understood and most important function in the whole organization.  If we look at our boards from this position of strength, recruitment is no longer a chore, but an opportunity.  Board meetings are no longer an hour of dread, but a time for moving the organization forward.

And that’s the blessing of a board that understands its role of ultimate accountability.  They can make the difference between an organization that is always trying to make it from day to day, vs. an organization that soars.

And in the end, that’s not only what’s best for the organization, but what’s best for the community.


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