We aim a lot of contradictory exhortations at boards. We tell them to be strategic. We tell them to provide oversight of the organization and the ED. We expect them to focus on fundraising...and their fiduciary role...and on providing hands-on help to staff. It is no wonder many board members feel uncertain about their role. An organization will be able to make better decisions, make decisions more quickly, and maximize the talents of its board members and staff if the board:
- Has common understanding of the role of the board and of board members,
- Establishes clear procedures for how the board is going to operate, and
- Establishes a partnership with the ED/CEO, so that he or she can make the day-to-day decisions that need to be made if an organization is going to be effective.
A Wealth of Resources
No area of nonprofit management gets as much attention on the bookshelves, on websites, or in coffee shop kvetching of EDs as governance does. If the sheer pounds of writing about the topic was related to how well developed the area is, there would be a lot less complaining. But we are going to send you down that road to learning about boards anyway. There really are some simple and easy to implement basics about having a good board. Start with these tools:
- Effective Board Meetings for Good Governance (National Council of Nonprofits) shares 10 tips and resources for meetings that are strategic, outcome-oriented, and productive; plus, links for Tips and Tools for Effective Meetings; and, additional Resources for Board Chairs & Effective Meetings
- (501 Commons)
- and Ethical Practice (Independent Sector)
Other books providing great tools include:
- The Little Book of Boards: A Board Member’s Handbook for Small (and Very Small) Nonprofits by Erik Hanberg (2014)
- Nonprofit Financial Oversight: The Concise and Complete Guide for Boards and Finance Committees by Michael E. Batts, CPA (2017)
- The Nonprofit Board Answer Book: A Practical Guide for Board Members and Chief Executives by BoardSources, Third Edition (2012)
- Boards on Fire by Susan Howlett (2011)
Check out our Board Training workshop series, a forum for executive directors and board members to network with colleagues, learn about specific governance topics, and discuss issues facing their organizations. All sessions are held at Pacific Tower in Seattle.
The Difference Between a Board and a Boss
While it is true that the board of directors recruits and hires the Executive Director or Chief Executive Officer - and can fire them if the majority of the board votes to do so - boards are not in a good position to act as if they are the boss of the ED/CEO. The first reason for this is that no board member is a singular authority. Actions must be taken by the full board. The processes required for group action are agreeing to an agenda, determining options to be evaluated, evaluating them using different lenses and points of view, and lastly, making a group decision. These actions, even under the best of circumstances, do not move quickly enough for the board to be telling the executive what to do about day-to-day management issues.
So, the board must put the organization in the hands of the executive AND ask for the information they need to collectively consider if the organization is performing and if the executive is doing a good job. This will be made easier if the board decides before doing an evaluation what "doing a good job" looks like. The board can ask for regular reports that include measures of success. They can also conduct interviews with funders, clients, and stakeholders to see how the organization is viewed by others. If some board members feel there are issues of organizational or individual performance, the board must evaluate this as a group and determine what the full board thinks, not just the feelings of individuals.