Running in Place

I spend a fair amount of time each week meeting with nonprofit leaders – both staff and board.  Invariably, I ask how well they think their board is performing and to what level they think the board is contributing to the success of the organization.  More often than not, I hear about problems the board is having or how they are not contributing effectively to the success of the organization.  Most all report areas of board performance that could stand significant improvement.

I then ask what they are doing about improving the performance of their board in the areas indicated.  The interesting thing is that very few are doing any type of performance improvement program for their board.  To me, this seems so contrary to the normal way of running an organization. Why would any good leader choose not to improve an area of significant organizational weakness? I doubt any CEO in the for-profit world would identify an area in their company that needs improvement and then choose to do nothing about it.  So what causes this phenomenon in the nonprofit world?

I have been kicking this question around in my mind for some time now and have come to some preliminary conclusions about this lack of effort when it comes to improving the performance of the board.  To help explain this I have come up with five quotes that relate to the various problems.  

In the 1981 movie “History of the World, Part 1” Mel Brooks, playing Louis XVI, utters the now famous phrase, “It’s good to be the king.”  I think all-too-often this applies to nonprofit organizations where one individual — either an executive director or board chairs — has garnered the bulk of the power in the organization.  Often, this may be the founder of the organization.  These individuals are not particularly interested in the sort of shared partnership that takes place in an organization with a good executive director and a strong engaged board.  Instead, they are interested in the board not interfering with what they want to do with the organization. These individuals often restrict the flow of information to the board and make the bulk of the key decision outside of the board environment.  More often than not, the “king (or queen)” is actually aided and abetted in achieving total control by a board made up of friends and cronies who are perfectly content to let them run the organization.  It is telling that many, if not most, of the horrific scandals appearing in the press about nonprofits feature the existence of a “king” or “queen” in the organization who operates outside of the oversight of a board.

The second quote comes from a popular song by Taylor Swift, in which she tells her antagonist, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  A Persian poet by the name of Ibn Yamin wrote about the four types of people in the world.  He wrote there is “one who doesn’t know and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know…. He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion.” To me this same prediction applies to some boards as well.  A best practice in developing good boards is to have a strong orientation program that not only stresses knowledge of the organization but also highlights the duties and responsibilities of the board and individual board members.  Think about it.  Most people who are selected for board duty don’t have an innate sense of these topics.  Most are either selected because they are successful business people or exceptional volunteers from within the organization.  Nothing in their day-to-day lives necessarily prepares them to be effective board members.  In short, they don’t know what they don’t know.  If no one trains them on what they should be doing and how exceptional boards operate, problems often go undiscovered and uncorrected.  The result is a board that doesn’t even know it’s not doing what it should be doing.

The third applicable quote comes from Mark Twain, who wrote, “The lack of money is the root of all evil.”  Let’s face it; very few nonprofits are flush with cash in the face of recessions and rising demand for services.  The result is that boards and executive directors have had to make hard choices about what to fund and what to put off.  It is unfortunate, but board training and performance improvement seems to be an area that gets slipped.  The one exception is that organizations seem ready to spend money to convince board members to give more money or to be more active in fundraising.  This is certainly understandable, but it also stems from a mistaken view that the primary purpose of the board is fundraising for the organization.  Certainly fundraising can be A role, but it is not The role of the board.  This overemphasis on fundraising is often reinforced by a lack of understanding about what exactly the board should be doing outside of fundraising.  Without an understanding of the benefits of an educated and engaged board, it is unlikely that nonprofits will spend money to improve the quality of board performance.

The fourth applicable quote comes from Abraham Lincoln who said “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”  Lincoln was referring to legal representation, but the same basic concept applies to executive directors or board members who attend some sort of board training course and then think they can reform the board from the inside.  Such efforts may result in some improvement, but it is my experience that an outside set of eyes is required to ask the hard questions and point out the “elephants in the room” that people inside the system can’t or won’t mention.  If an organization is really interested in upgrading the performance of the board or improving the board-staff relationships in the organization, they should get an outside set of eyes to help them look at current performance and identify things that need improvement.

The final quote is attributed to Deion Sanders among others.  It goes, “Looking Good is Feeling Good.”  How this applies to boards is that there are some board members who join boards for the wrong reason.  They simply want to be seen as a member of the board, but they don’t really care about carrying out the actual work of the board.  These individuals are interested in looking good either within their community or within their organization, but they don’t want to expend the time or energy to learn about proper board functioning or making changes needed to improve the current functioning.

I would speculate that some boards that don’t make an effort to evaluate their board performance and take the time and effort to improve board performance actually have more than one of the above happening within their board.  It’s sad because it creates a situation whereby those boards and the individuals that comprise those boards are running in place, and like people that run in place, they are exercising, but they are not really getting anywhere in terms of improving organizational performance.  I hope nonprofit leaders will take a hard look at their organizations and see if any of the above maladies exist in their organization and then take corrective action to build strong dynamic boards to guide our sector and deliver maximum benefit to society.


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