A friend of mine was telling me that she wants to step off a board she joined this past fall. Two months in, that is a bad sign. I also know that she has happily served on another nonprofit’s board for 6 years – that is quite a contrast. And one worth exploring.
Why does she perceive one board as dysfunctional and the other as a good use of her time? This is what I discovered about the new situation (the quotes are what she has heard other people say about the board):
- It is the board of the school her kids have and continue to attend.
- She loves the school and the education
- She knows all of the board members and considers many of them friends
- “They run it like a family.” I love my family, but I don’t want to work with them for a reason. There are too many things that go unsaid when you’re primary focus is on the relationships. Being on a board sometimes means making tough decisions that other board members and staff might not agree with or like.
- “We all know each other too well for that,” is often heard in response to any formalized process. But that keeps the inner circle intact, more feel good exchanges, less hard conversations and needed changes or constructive suggestions reduced to background noise.
- “We have had the same president forever and he knows how we work.” Continuity is good, institutional knowledge is good, the same president for a long time often means there is no way to evolve and bring in large shifts of focus – and that is bad. To flip the famous Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr quote, “the more you want things to stay the same, the more they change.” Nonprofits need to evolve and it is very hard for the same person to be in charge of growth for many years and be able to have fresh perspective again and again.
- “All boards have some people who join but then don’t make it a priority.” This is true, but as often as not it is the result of the current board’s flaws and not just how busy an individual is at the time. Engagement is essential. Did the board member come on disinterested? Probably not. Did she feel unheard or have her ideas dismissed too quickly? Remember that perception is reality – the board may think they were listening, but if the board member feels like nothing will come of it, she will be too busy to attend meetings in the future.
- “I wish the meetings would end on time.” We all have limited time and meetings that start late, run over, get caught up in details that should have been handled in committee, or require repetition for people who were not at recent meetings or consistently don’t read reports ahead of time (my personal pet peeve) are all the death of people who care about good process. And that is the majority of board members.
The good news is that these are all correctable. A few “best practices” and you can keep your board members for 6 years (or the maximum allowed from your by-laws) and keep them engaged. Making it less of a family run business and more of a high functioning nonprofit.