Board of Turkeys
This nonprofit should be great, but its board is a dud. What can I do to fix it?
Updated Wednesday, May 13, 2009, at 7:01 AM
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.
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?
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 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.
Photograph of board room by Getty Creative Images.