Monday, July 28, 2008

Board Beyond Belief

A board is a flat slab of wood or other material used for some specific purpose. Second it is an organized body set up for a specific purpose: to advise, oversee, govern and exact accountability from a business, a charity, or other type of organization. In some of the boards I've served I can't really tell that there's much difference from the first definition to the second.

But I also think some people who run nonprofits, my area of specialty, have about the board they want or deserve - despite their protestations. In their cups more than one of this type has confided to me that they view their board as an expensive nuisance that contributes less than it should in time, money or smarts and demands more than it should through micro-governance, bird-brained schemes and high maintenance. These executives usually have a poor to awful relationship with their chairperson and other trustees.

The very best boards I've seen are well led at the top and respectful of management. They understand governance, pay attention, show up and are clear in their expectations of management; if not generous to a fault the board members are strong contributors.

The not so good boards are most often founder dominated."Fish rots from the head down," says the ancient proverb. Board members and management go along; no one wants to cross the founder. New ideas and new ways disappear into committees that never meet. Sometimes it is hard to feel the stiletto or even know where it went in.

The best nonprofit CEOs I've worked for have figured out a modus for dealing respectfully and candidly with the board chairperson; they make sure the board's membership rotates and that there is reasonable enforcement of term limits. They are transparent in their dealings with the board, they are accountable, they consult and both offer and seek advice. They are tough-minded and most of all they have humor.

Then there is a vast middle: In the board room tarries people who should have left - toes up or otherwise; often the board is observably passive/aggressive. Meetings are stunningly soporific because of the baffle-them-with-bullshit style of deliberate information overload, incomprehensible financial reports, suffocating detail about the golf event and no time left to discuss "program."

This is the question I ask myself: if this organization's board did not exist what difference would it make? If I'm not sure I have a board beyond belief!

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