This nonprofit should be great, but its board is a dud. What can I do to fix it?

Advice on how to make the world better.
May 13 2009 7:01 AM

Board of Turkeys

This nonprofit should be great, but its board is a dud. What can I do to fix it?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

What's the best way to pep up a laggard board?
What's the best way to pep up a laggard board?

Dear Patty and Sandy,

I am on a pro-bono consulting project with a local nonprofit. Unfortunately, I'm simply not sure this organization can make it. There's a gung-ho executive director but a total turkey of a board. I attempted to make the case—diplomatically—that board members need to formalize their commitment, or they are on a path to obsolescence. It didn't work.

Do you have a view on whether a dud board can be rehabilitated? How scary should I be with these deadbeats to prompt some action?

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—Lisa

Sandy:

My answer: pretty scary.

My mom is the real expert on this, but even I know that a committed, high-functioning board is critical to the success of a nonprofit. Don't worry about offending the board. Worry about letting down the staff, the donors, and most importantly, the clients who rely on the organization.

I know from my own experience that nonprofit boards often give executive directors more angst than support. That trickles down to influence the rest of the organization. In a recent CompassPoint Study, only one-third of nonprofit executives said that their staffs see the board as engaged leaders. And, unsurprisingly, nonprofit execs who are unhappy with their boards are more than twice as likely to be planning their departures than those who feel supported. It doesn't sound as if this organization can afford to lose its executive director, so forego the diplomacy and let them know what they're risking. It's a lot harder to rebuild an organization than a board.

Patty:

I have been on a few great boards, a few dud boards, and a wide range in between.

I was a member of a barely adequate board that, when faced with a real crisis, shook their collective lethargy and rose up to be a great board that overcame the immediate crisis, rebuilt leadership and board responsibilities, and provided support for a new era of expansion. I have also been on a board that was deeply involved and passionate about the mission and needs of the organization—but stalled in developing a fully disciplined approach to governance. Surplus passion and loyalty to individual leaders caused the board to fail to address the long-term needs of the organization as a whole.

In short, I don't think you can easily predict whether this dud board can become a great board. It will take a few months to figure that out, but it can only happen if they are challenged to step up. Since there does not appear to be an immediate crisis (often the rallying point for a board to "step up"), you need to be the one to challenge them.

I presume that this is a small nonprofit, since you are working on their strategic plan for free, and assume that you took this pro bono project on because you care passionately about this organization and its mission. You ill-serve that mission if you do not make the point, clearly, that you feel there is a big gap between the board as it operates today and the board the organization needs and deserves.

This should lead the agenda at your next board meeting. Be specific, illustrate what support this organization is likely to require in the years ahead, and supply a draft minimum job description for each board member and officer. No board needs to start from scratch. There is a wealth of information to help improve board performance, from the basics of what makes an effective board (courtesy Bridgestar) to sample job descriptions (courtesy Idealist.org et al.) to board assessments (courtesy Greater Twin Cities United Way). The very best aspirational guide I have read is The Source: 12 Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards, and it is short enough, at 28 pages, for even the most impatient board member.

Allocate the time to have the board fully engage in creating the right list of goals and the right job descriptions. No doubt this exercise will cause a few of the members to quit, but it will also cause a few board members to show they are ready to step up and provide the necessary leadership. Your board may need a new member or a trusted adviser to help prod this reform. In your community, there are probably several boards that have risen from ashes to success. Find out who was instrumental in your local board turnarounds and ask them for assistance.

Once the board has set new expectations for roles and goals, they should create a baseline of "how we're doing" to measure the gap between the plan and the reality. The most important function of this assessment will be to start the discussion of what the board must do to move quickly forward. Even if you achieve the turnaround you hope for, the last of the 12 principles is an important one: "Exceptional boards energize themselves through planned turnover, thoughtful recruitment, and inclusiveness." While you may be able to move this board from Dud to Good, every board should be on a regular cycle of releasing members who have finished their terms or failed to engage and recruiting qualified and committed new members who will fuel the continuous improvement process.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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