Non-profit board members: Bane or bounty?

Board members’ volunteer service is the life blood of an organization. As people become busier and volunteer opportunities abound, board members can become ineffective by virtue of their own ambition. A board member who serves on three or more significant charity boards cannot be effective on all three. The purpose of recruiting branded board members is to bring their passion and professionalism to bear for the mission.

In my years as a non-profit professional and as a community volunteer, I have observed the dynamics which makes the difference between a healthy organization and a stagnant one. In this series of articles, I will take on a variety of subjects, all leading back to the same conclusion: plan your work…and work your plan. Without a proper map, an organization will get lost along the journey.

Once an organization has a clear idea of where it’s headed, it needs the proper drivers in place to move it from point A to point B. However, maps are useless if the driver doesn’t know how to drive or is blind to the path. Here are my top 10 reasons why a non-profit organization might be struggling by virtue of poor board development.

#1 Board members lack engagement –  board members have to be engaged to be effective. Give them a job, tell them they are important, let them work on a project so they ARE important and look to younger generations for board members.

#2 Board members don’t contribute financially to the organization – if your board members do not contribute financially why should anyone else? If board members don’t care enough about the organization to dig in their wallet, then why should a donor? In-kind or volunteering to serve on the board does not count as a donation. Money walks the talk.

#3 Board members are window dressing – why was the board member recruited? Is s/he a known community member? Was s/he recruited to lend credibility to your the organization? If a board member is simply occupying a seat (or not showing up), then why are they there?

#4 Staff won’t let board members do any work – when an organization is upside down, meaning that the staff dictates to the board, the organization is doomed for stagnation. The purpose of a board is twofold; to provide the direction and focus for the organization and second to provide and advocate for financial contributions. Staff executes the will of the board, not the other way around.

#5 Individual board members are recruited for the wrong reasons – These are board member who are recruited because they are personal friends, a warm body or a demographic needed to fill a grant application. Recruit board members who actually complement the outlined strategic objectives of your organization.

#6 Board members have personal agendas – if you have 24 members on your board, you have 24 different ideas of what the organization is and what it should be doing. A board member with a personal agenda to promote themselves or their business by being involved with a non-profit is not helping the organization. In fact, it can severely damage the organization’s reputation. Complete an appreciative inquiry process to identify the trends among your staff, board members and community stakeholders. You will be surprised by the results.

#7 Terms limits are not enforced – term limits are in by-laws for a reason, new blood is needed to keep an organization relevant. When term limits are not enforced either by reluctance to give up a position or the lack of succession, the organization is headed for challenges. You can always revote a good board member back to the board. Term limits provide a non-threatening way to dismiss ineffective board members.

#8 The Nominating Committee is ineffective or non-existent – Every organization needs an active Nominating Committee. The Nominating Committee is an ongoing committee who seeks to recruit and train new board members for the organization. The Nominating Committee serves as the human capital link to strategic implementation. Without the right people at the head of the organization, the organizational efficiency is diminished. If you don’t have an active Nominating Committee, work on implementing one. Check your by-laws, there are provisions for a Nominating Committee in most of them.

#9 Founder’s Syndrome or “That’s the way we have always done it” – Probably the most frustrating element of leadership for a staff member or new board member. Founder’s Syndrome exists when leaders who were responsible for creating the organization refuse to make way for new leadership. Refusing to change or acknowledge the dynamics of change stagnates the growth of an organization. It is difficult to move a founder to a non-voting position, but there are ways to do so with dignity.

#10 Rubber stamping at board meetings – speaking also to the issue of engagement, board members who come to a meeting and move through the agenda without discussion or challenge are not helping the organization grow. In many cases, agenda items are rubber stamped because board members are reluctant to speak up for fear of being embarrassed, are in a hurry to get the meeting concluded or simply don’t want to appear uninformed by asking questions. Similarly, an organization which operates without a healthy committee structure is susceptible to a rubber stamp environment.

Developing a healthy board takes time and energy. It takes commitment from the board and a clear vision of where you are going to move the organization forward. Take a look at your non-profit board…how effective is it? Rate yourself by the elements noted above. If more than five of these conditions are prevalent on your board, then it’s time to ask for help. I am happy to help.