Every nonprofit organization in America has a board. But very few actually take advantage of the leadership power of their board to accomplish their mission.
We’ve worked with more than 200 boards, both in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, over the past 16 years, and we’ve discovered that the vast majority of boards fail to live up to their potential.
Many executive directors we’ve spoken with confide that they “dread the board meeting” as a make-work event that takes a lot of time and generates very little. Others describe their board as a crucial cash cow for fundraising that they need to “feed” but that adds no strategic value.
We have also watched nonprofits scare away amazing board members, because they didn’t have a plan to tap their talent and leverage it in a meaningful way—a way that would benefit their organization and provide a more fulfilling experience to the board members themselves.
However, there are practical ways to transform nonprofit boards from a “necessary evil” to an organizational asset, and it can be done in a relatively modest timeframe.
Avoiding the “dog-and-pony” model
The vast majority of nonprofits use what we call the dog-and-pony model of board engagement. More than three-quarters of the board meeting is consumed with staff presentation, leaving only a small amount of time for board engagement. This prevents trustees from offering new ideas that the overworked staff may be asked to implement.
One executive director recently explained it this way: “We give the board a bone to chew on—an unimportant topic that makes them feel engaged but avoids generating a million new ideas we don’t have time for.”
Implicit in this thinking is the assumption that board members don’t genuinely add value. Instead, they must be fooled into thinking that the organization values their input so that they continue their support—and their checks.
Smart board members quickly recognize the game. This diminishes their enthusiasm and can lead to resentment. It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are practical ways to transform boards using an approach to board engagement that is both radically inclusive and radically results-oriented.
The results orientation is accomplished by creating a culture that is both completely transparent and explicit. Begin by clarifying board and staff roles and expectations to avoid micro-management. Great organizations respect everyone’s time. Great meetings anticipate aggressive board input on critical issues and build that into the agenda; they are expertly facilitated and end on time. They are also followed up with clear action steps for which everyone holds themselves accountable.
Coming out of a recent board meeting where this approach was used, one board member described the experience as “the most transformational board meeting we’ve ever had.” Even the executive director was astonished: Months and even years of wheel-spinning was replaced with a laser-like focus that productively engaged board members to add real value built on mutual respect.
If your organization wants to transform the world, transforming your board leadership model is a crucial first step.