Ten ways boards can damage their organizations

This article was originally published on the Third Sector Innovations website.

1. Members join boards of organizations they don’t really care about. They fail to commit and fail to be engaged. The idea still exists that service on a board of directors is an “honorary” recognition, and it is not–it IS a lot of work and a serious challenge to lead through effective governance.

2. Members think showing up for board meetings fulfills the extent of their obligations, yet membership entails more. The rule of thumb for a well-run organization is a minimum of six hours per month should be spent inboard activity, according to Jeff Pryor, formerly at Anschutz Family Foundation:

  • 2 hours at board meetings
  • 2 hours in committee work
  • 2 hours in outreach (marketing, public relations, fundraising)

In reaching this level of commitment, members need to understand when they’re “wearing their board member hats” and when they’re “wearing theirvolunteer hats.” Additionally, they need to remember that efforts made by committees involve lots of hard work and should not be changed. Boards will often want to change the decisions of committees without full knowledge of committee research and discussion. Let the committees do their jobs!

3. Board members don’t prepare to do the job correctly. There is a general tendency to NOT prepare for board meetings (read materials, etc.)and a lack of understanding of the role of governance, which is to establish the proper controls to allow the organization’s work to be done in a cost-effective, responsible manner. Board members don’t always see “the big picture,” which should be the essence of their role in order to protect and promote the mission of the organization.

4. Board members don’t understand budgets and other financial presentations, leaving it to others to make sure funds are in place and wisely spent. These same members are shocked when the organization is in the red or worse yet, the victim of an ongoing misuse or theft of funds. Boards have a strong fiduciary responsibility within nonprofit organizations, and each member needs to have a clear understanding of how monies are accrued, managed and spent.

5. Members think the bottom line in an organization is its financial status. In any nonprofit organization, there are two bottom lines: the finances and the mission. All programs and initiatives should be weighed in financial terms as well as by how they serve the mission.

6. Board members fail to speak up when every indicator says that s/he should. Members fail to ask questions. Members fail to “rock the boat” as it sinks deep into the ocean. It is the responsibility of each member to ask questions and speak his or her mind, leading to knowledgeable and informed decisions.

7. Board members don’t do their duty to give, get AND get off! This means giving personally (money, expertise, time), getting others to contribute the same, and getting off the board when it’s time. Yes, fundraising and term limits are minimal expectations of the job.

8. Board members hire, retain and tolerate the wrong executive director. They expect too little of this person. They know they’re micromanaging, and it’s because the director isn’t getting the job done. The board needs to set roles that are clearly defined and regularly check in to make sure the board is doing board work and the staff is doing staff work.

9. Board members fail to be involved in long-range planning, sometimes not looking to the future at all. Board meetings are spent talking about past progress and what already has happened. The board needs to take its responsibility of long-range planning very seriously, setting a course for the future, and then spend significant time looking forward at board meetings.

10. Board members engage in parking-lot conversations. It is frustrating for both staff and other board members when conversations occur and “unofficial” decisions are made after or between meetings. Board members’ opinions need to be heard at meetings, not in closed-door or under-the-table discussions.

See also our Page to Practice book summaries related to board development:

A Fundraising Guide for Nonprofit Board Members by Julia Ingraham Walker

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