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Board or Bored?

by Terry Stokesbary • January 2016

Board or Bored?

What are boards for anyway? Without a doubt, this is a critical question for the nonprofit sector as a whole and especially for the many specific nonprofit organizations that are seeking to make a difference in their communities and throughout the world.

Increasingly, more and more resources, written by well-respected individuals and organizations, are providing helpful instruction and summaries regarding the responsibilities of a board. For example, BoardSource offers Ten Basic Responsibilities, David L. Coleman summarizes 12 Best Practices (Board Essentials), and the Independent Sector outlines 33 principles of sound practice for charitable organizations and foundations (The Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice). These and many other offerings are to be commended and should be utilized by board members and executive leaders.

However, in the midst of all the resources and information, are boards and organizations missing something? Is there a blind spot when it comes to the importance and work of a board? The easy answer is yes: common sense would simply state that every board has a weakness something that needs to be corrected. What board (or any leader for that matter) does not have a blind spot when it comes to its work? Think for a second, what is your board’s blind spot?

While a longer list could be identified, a common blind spot sits at the heart of a board’s basic responsibility or view of itself. So what is it? Simply stated, it is leadership. Excellent boardsmanship is not simply compiling a list of policies to follow; or is it simply a list of roles or responsibilities that are to be checked as completed. While these are important, it is really not enough. Excellent boardsmanship is about leadership.

In the book Governance as Leadership, the authors (Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor) state, “Constituents expect nonprofit CEOs to articulate clearly and persuasively the organization’s mission, beliefs, values, and culture.” Further, “Leaders are expected to shape agendas, not impose priorities; to allocate attention, not dictate results; and to define problems, not mandate solutions.” Finally, the authors explain, “These expectations we now have for leaders closely resemble conventional notions of governing.” In other words, overall leadership is a basic responsibility of the board.

Why is this important? Chait, Ryan, and Taylor explain that while nonprofit managers have gravitated toward the role of leadership, board members have tilted more toward the role of management. Without knowing it, boards have accepted this role. It is truly a blind spot. You see, in every good way imaginable, board members are seeking to contribute to the organizations which they serve. However, board members often recognize that they have much more to contribute but are limited at times because of the “check list” mentality or fear of meddling in management business. Often, this leads promising and talented board members to serve only technical or practical realties of organizational life. The blind spot is that there are talented and caring individuals serving only as pseudo managers who serve to approve decisions and direction, rather than to help lead organizations. They and the organization are robbed of this valuable opportunity.

There is a danger inherent in the tilt away from leadership and toward a check list of responsibilities for board members. The danger is underutilized board members, which can result in feelings of dissatisfaction and perhaps boredom. Is your board made up of people who want to serve at the highest levels possible, or are they simply bored?

Chait, Ryan, and Taylor offer a diagnosis: Boards (like most people) are vulnerable to problems of purpose. Board members want to contribute; they want to make a difference. But, are they positioned to make their greatest contributions, which should yield better board members and stronger organizations? Ultimately, it is not just trustee satisfaction that is at risk but also effective governing. The term “trustee” is a tremendous responsibility. In his book, Stewards of a Sacred Trust, David L. McKenna explains that board members are often called “trustees” and are done so for a good reason. “Trustees” are charged to hold in trust all the resources of an organization for the benefit of others. That is leadership.

Think about this, “Dynamic, visionary boards are absolutely critical to the future of nonprofit, service delivery organizations and, in fact, to the health of our society as a whole,” says Byron L. Tweeten, Transformational Boards. Board members, please afford yourselves the opportunity provide leadership to the organizations that you love so dearly as you hold in trust the resources, people and mission of those organizations for generations to come.

For more information, see the Talking Point on Organizational Leadership (Board and Executive)