A Very Bored Board: Managing Expectations

In his post last week, our friend Jim Paglia discussed his experience and work with nonprofit boards. As I reflected on his words of wisdom, I began to review an assessment we recently wrote for a client, and was shocked by some of the findings!


Let’s take a look at their board’s statistics:

  1. Two board meetings per year are required, according to the bylaws. However, the board has only met twice in the last two years.
  2. Board member attendance at the last meeting was extremely low – less than half showed up.
  3. Since 2008, this board has not reached 100% participation in the annual fund.
  4.  60% of the board members gave less than $1,000 in 2012.
  5. Only 7% of them have made any gift in 2013.
  6. The bylaws require term limits, but in spite of this, there are several members who have surpassed the allowed number of consecutive terms.
  7. Last, but certainly not insignificant, there are 60 members on the board!

I hope that you read this with the same reaction as I did – any one of those points is a problem, much less all seven of them!  (Not to mention, that’s just where I stopped listing the findings – the full report is 30 pages long.)

Who is to blame for this? The board? The organization? Its executive leadership?

Effective governance is not a one-way street.

The board technically owns the organization. Ideally, it should be a self-guided, self-perpetuating body. However, many times we run into boards that look to the organization’s staff to “run the board.”

Whose job is it really to enforce term limits – the executive director or the board chair/nominating committee? If the executive director serves based on the board’s recommendation, how willing will he be to enforce this policy?

On the flip side, this particular board has clearly not been engaged by the staff. I don’t believe there is an effective orientation program for new members. They also do not have a job description or list of expectations for board members, nor is there a committee structure in place to engage the board members with the organization through meaningful work. The staff is responsible for creating these processes and delivering them to the board.

What is my point with all this?

I’m honestly not sure, as such a dysfunctional board situation is beyond my comprehension. The board is not driven by staff to engage and advance; the staff has no board pressure to move the mission forward.

What this tells us is that the entire organization is content to remain in this environment of complacency. However, from the outside perspective, there is a leadership vacuum that needs to be filled.

The staff wants to conduct a capital campaign. What good would those funds be to an organization with no strategic plan? Picture trying to secure startup donations from 60 disengaged board members.  Not to mention, the challenge of asking for gifts from others, when only 7% of the board has participated in the annual fund!

I hear a lot of complaining from nonprofit boards and staff alike. Board members don’t feel meaningful, and see themselves as only needed for their money or rubber stamp on decisions made by others. Staff feel that board members don’t take their role seriously, overstep their roles and meddle in daily operations, and don’t show up or participate enough.

The antagonist to both sides is a lack of communication of expectations. Board members, without clear job descriptions, will do what they think they should do, rather than what is needed by the organization. Conversely, organizations hesitate to create specific expectations, out of fear of losing board members.

In our client’s particular instance, we recommended that these issues, along with others, be addressed. The main point of our recommendations comes to this – without everyone on the same page, the organization will suffer, so it is imperative to document and explain expectations.

It’s never a bad time to check in with your board members, and make sure they understand their role and your expectations of them – and vice versa!

And while you’re at it, read Jim’s first-hand account of his own board experiences.