Non-profit Boards of Directors from Hell
Board of Directors is a group of individuals elected/selected to provide oversight or governance for an organization or corporation.
I've had the honor of working for non-profit organizations most of my life—either as a volunteer or paid staff. I grew up in a family that believed in service to family, friends, community. If something needed to be done you do it. If someone needed help neighbors and friends came together to provide what was needed. We depended on each other. We inspired each other. We celebrated with each other. We were ordinary people committed to helping each other through all things—good and not so good.
No one batted an eye when I graduated college with a teaching degree and decided to take a job with a community service agency. For the next, close to, 40 years I've worked with people committed to making an impact on the world (large and small) and I've worked with many boards of directors—on both sides of the table. As an executive director, the times when I was the most successful with the least amount of struggle was when the board understood it's role, understood my role, and made sure I felt their support and encouragement. They were a team; they functioned as a team understanding their strengths and their weaknesses. They listened and planned and made sure the organization had the necessary resources. They took their responsibility seriously. They offered suggestions, feedback and assistance without being critical. They recognized and applauded my strengths and found ways to assist me in my areas of weakness. Most of them were people with a for-profit corporate background but they came to realize just how hard it could be in the life of a non-profit staffer. I first met these amazing people when I stepped into the driver's seat of a non-profit that was about to go under. The board, in its infinite wisdom, saw both the need and the benefit that this organization offered the communities so they struggled with the idea of either letting it go in peace or fighting to keep it alive. They decided the latter. I will always cherish these people in my heart and you will see why. There are board manuals, board position descriptions, position descriptions for officers and member at large—all good—but when they finish their training and begin the process of being a board this is what they are suppose to look like and how they should function.
Taking this assignment/job was actually my first permanent executive director position. I'd served in the role for short periods in various locations and I'd served in the second-in-command position and had been a senior staffer in various roles. Maybe that's why I got the job; I was too insane not to get on a sinking ship (smile). But there I was faced with the awesome task of trying to breath life back into an organization on life support and had, for all intends and purposes, been given the last rites. It took almost two years, a lot of work hours, a lot of sleepless nights, endless meetings, clawing through papers, fund-raising, and grant-writing, begging, borrowing and stealing any idea that might work. And, then it happened we were in the “black” again financially and our image in the community restored; and, almost two years to the day that I arrived we, as an organization and as a community, celebrated—big time. But it couldn't have happened without the most fabulous and extremely caring yet unabashedly professional board of directors I have ever had the privilege of working with before or since. I have worked with some good boards but these people were the best. They were:
A group that represented the community in many ways—ethnic, racial, educational, civic, religious, gender, and socio-economic; they were lawyers, teachers, college professors, ministers, housewives; they were in sales, farming, retail, manufacturing, management, politics; they were parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sister, brothers and friends. They were a cross-section of talent, personality and skills. And, they:
- Cared about the organization.
- Were willing to work to do whatever necessary to make the organization strong again—and they did.
- Understood the difference between governance and management (operations).
- Never allowed me to feel I was alone. They worked shoulder to shoulder with me as I poured over past reports, talked with employees and volunteers trying to get a sense of where things begin to fall apart so that we could move forward with confidence. They never once crossed the line into management/operations unless it was both appropriate and invited. And, they never once blamed the former executive director.
Their interaction with the community was exceptional making sure I was introduced to the entire community, and because I was new (an outsider) they gave me credibility.
And, whenever one of them, especially the board chair sensed my struggle or sensed my weariness the question was how can we help? They were angels in business suits.
My former boss gave me her blessing and words of wisdom as I left my former job.... “there is a fine line between keeping your board informed and telling everything, quickly learn the difference...you have good instincts so you will know when and when not.”
At my executive director training I was told never let your board, and particularly your president/chair, be surprised. This was never an issue with most of the board's I've worked with, but in later years it became an issue that bit me hard in the tush. That fine line became a tight rope and I had to work hard to keep it from becoming a noose around my neck.
Then there are the boards from hell or as I prefer to call them “crazy ass boards. After almost every board meeting, in one community organization, I would retreat to my office close the door and in frustration cry out “this is a crazy ass board”. You will know them right away. They are the great pretenders. They pretend they know more than they do. They pretend they will take the board orientation or training and then have multiple reasons why they can't. They pretend they support the organization but are the first to openly criticize the programs/activities they approved. You and your staff work for weeks preparing a budget using the goals they set and approved. You labor over objectives and action steps’ making sure that the right amount of money is attached to each and that you build a reasonable and attainable fund development plan. You bring it to the finance committee who pour over it in great detail, asking questions and making suggestions that often turn a good idea into a great idea...the final tweaking takes place and it is now time for it to be presented to the full board. Should be a piece of cake, right? Not with the crazy ass board....One or more have personal agenda's and decide to carry them out at your expense. Nothing you do will help them see what you are doing and why. They don't connect with you or the mission and furthermore they don't care to. Being a board member looks good on the resume and now they intend to make a name for themselves. What makes all of this even worst is that the mob mentality takes over...the one or two renegade members somehow get the following of most of the others (active or passive following both equally as dangerous). Those board members who don't agree may weakly voice their concern and disagreement but soon lose heart and simply resign their positions.
The board of directors is the governing body of an organization and carries the ultimate responsibility for the effectiveness of the organization and its performance. It is a fiduciary body responsible for the stewardship of its assets. The board is legally, ethically, and morally responsible for performing its functions and carries a general moral accountability to the community it serves. A board member should know the mission and believe in the mission (or grow to believe in it). It is important that all members of the board fully understand the significance of their role and become a fully functioning member. They should:
- Respect and maintain confidentiality of the work of the board.
- Keep abreast of developments and trends in the local community and the community at large are able to thoughtfully participant in discussions about future visions for the organization.
- Agree to participate in board orientation and/or training.
- Agree to serve on committees went needed.
- Attend board and committee meetings, actively participating in the decision making process, and express frank and honest opinions without being critical.
- Agree to put aside individual interest for the best interest of the organization.
- Be willing to listen to the opinions of others.
- Read/review board materials prior meetings.
- Support and contribute to the development of the organization's goals.
- Agree to make a personal contribution to the organization fund-raising goals.
- Agree to accept and support board decisions regardless of personal opinion.
- Understand that your role in governance doesn't give you carte blanch entry into the day-to-day operations of the organization.
So how do you find good reliable and supportive board members.... you don't know what you're getting but there are ways to try to avoid living the nightmare.... depend too, on how your members are selected...There need to be a good selection process and within that process make sure you do two things:
- Interview them
- Make sure they know they must attend board training
Never think of any of them as your friend, especially the board president/chair. Like in any relationship a natural friendship may happen but don't bank on it.
Keep everything above board, document everything, never lie to them and take care of your staff and never let them intimidate you into believing that being a caring manager is not a good thing...because it is.
“Could Hamlet have been written by a committee, or the Mona Lisa painted by a club? Could the New Testament have been composed as a conference report? Creative ideas do not spring from groups. They spring from individuals. The divine spark leaps from the finger of God to the finger of Adam.”
Alfred Whitney Griswold, American Education 1906-63