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What Makes a Great Board?
Expert shares his insights
Editor's Note: Reprinted with permission from Contributions Magazine. Free subscriptions are available to nonprofit staff and volunteers at www.contributionsmagazine.com.
Andy Robinson is the author of Great Boards for Small Groups and its companion book, Big Gifts for Small Groups. We recently sat down with Robinson to discuss various aspects of nonprofit boards.
What makes a great board, in your opinion?
Robinson: Just what you’d expect; a list of qualifications that’s easy to understand but can be hard to find. Passion for the mission, clear expectations and clearly defined roles, a sense of camaraderie and enough time to do the job right. It also helps to have a bit of flexibility, humor and humility.
So why aren’t there more great boards?
Robinson: The word “great” implies ambition, so the goal is inherently difficult. Faced with the challenge if building a strong board, most organizations move in the wrong directions: they fear that the truth will scare away prospective candidates, so they “low-ball” their expectations. Unfortunately, if people can’t meet your board requirements, you’d rather find out before you invite them — and not after they’ve joined the board.
It seems almost universal that board and staff have conflicts. Why?
Robinson: The dividing lines between their responsibilities aren’t clearly defined, so they keep stepping on each other’s turf. Inexperienced boards tend to work at the wrong “altitude” by focusing on details better left to staff. This problem is often compounded in small, grassroots organizations; one minute the board is engaged in long-term planning, while the next they're leading hikes, painting the office, volunteering on the telephone hot line and dragging chairs around for the annual meeting. This creates confusion about the function of the board and who’s supervising whom. There are times when board members are simply volunteers and need to accept staff supervision.
When looking for new trustees, how do you sort out the good candidates from the not-so-good ones?
Robinson: In my experience, the best candidates ask lots of specific questions: “How is the board effective — what’s working? What’s not? How diversified and sustainable is the funding? How much time do you expect of each other? What will the organization do to help us increase our skills as board members?” The tougher the questions, the better. Often these questions come from their less-than-ideal experiences serving on other boards.
What’s the number one reason that board members quit?
Robinson: I don’t have the data, but I’d guess that most leave due to factors beyond the organization’s control: changes at work, changes at home, less time for volunteering. Some leave due to bad board experiences — conflict, inertia, fear of fundraising — but I’m not sure that board behavior is the primary reason overall. Given our modern lives, a certain amount of turnover is probably inevitable, so savvy nonprofits plan for it by building a leadership pipeline: a volunteer recruitment and retention program, strong committees and lots of opportunities for emerging leaders to take leadership roles.
For you, what aspect of nonprofit governance is most problematic?
Robinson: You know, we’ve created a weird model: we ask amateurs (volunteer board members) to supervise professionals (paid staff). This is a recipe for confusion, and it explains why so many organizations, once they reach a certain size, are staff-driven — and why the staff members end up challenging the board to engage and participate. Saying this differently, it’s pretty difficult to supervise your supervisor, which is the position so many nonprofit CEOs find themselves in.
Given that challenge, what concrete steps can a nonprofit executive take — right now — to improve his or her board?
Robinson: One, ask the board members — individually and collectively — what tools they need to be more effective — and then share responsibility for providing those tools. Two, work with the board to develop a reciprocal board job description that outlines what board members are expected to do and what they receive in return. Finally, demand that every meeting agenda be built around substantive, board-level decisions.
You’ve probably witnessed some contentious board meetings. Have you seen any fistfights?
Robinson: Not yet, but it might be a relief. I don’t believe in violence, but honest conflict — without cheap shots or personal attacks — can be a fine thing. Rather than clamping our mouths shut and going home angry, it’s healthier for everyone to name the disagreement and deal with it in a spirit of honesty and mutual respect. So recruit board members who are comfortable with conflict and have the skills to discuss it and resolve it.
About the Author: Andy Robinson is the author of Great Boards for Small Groups and its companion book, Big Gifts for Small Groups.