Do you rave about your board of directors’ performance, telling everyone you know about, for example, its fundraising accomplishments, useful feedback on your performance and success at solving big-picture problems? If you can answer “yes” to this question, acknowledge your good fortune and leadership ability. But if you can’t give such a glowing review of your board’s performance, take comfort: You’re not alone.
It’s not all their fault
According to the most recent study of its type, only 20% of more than 3,000 executive directors (EDs) were “very satisfied” with their boards’ performance. Almost 50% of respondents were “somewhat satisfied” with their board, leaving 32% who were “a little dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.” The Daring to Lead 2011 study, conducted by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation, found that blame for less-than-stellar board performance shouldn’t fall on the board alone, though.
The majority of survey respondents admitted to spending 10 hours or less per month working with or supporting their board. Despite frustration with issues ranging from board members’ low fundraising participation rates to receiving little to no job performance feedback, the typical ED devoted only 6% of his or her working hours to board business.
Wherever your nonprofit falls on the board satisfaction spectrum, it can probably benefit from improving the board/executive relationship. This starts by opening the lines of communication between the executive office and the boardroom — and committing to keeping them open.
Confusion ensues over roles and responsibilities
Boards can’t do their job if they don’t know what that job is. Not surprisingly, the most common source of conflict between boards and EDs is confusion about roles and responsibilities.
Make sure your board understands that it has specific duties that are distinct from the ED’s. In effect, the board governs and the ED manages. The board makes policy and maintains the organization’s financial integrity, and the ED implements policy and ensures that the nonprofit runs efficiently and effectively.
Consider writing a job description for your board as well as a list of expectations for individual board members. Also, be sure to provide new board members with an orientation to your organization.
Essential board duties
Depending on their mission and size, different nonprofits may expect their boards of directors to assume different responsibilities. But for governance to be effective, your nonprofit’s board should consider top duties to be financial oversight and the fiduciary duties of care, loyalty and confidentiality.
Other “big picture” board responsibilities should include creating and maintaining a strategic plan. The board also must regularly review risk exposure, ensuring that internal controls are enforced, insurance policies are in force and policies are followed. And the board should maintain an audit committee of financially knowledgeable board members to oversee internal and external audits.
The board also must establish and monitor its governance policies, including whistleblower, conflict-of-interest, gift acceptance, related-party transaction, and document retention and destruction policies. And the board should hire the ED, regularly evaluate his or her performance, and ensure that executive compensation is reasonable. Finally, along with being an ambassador that represents your organization to the community, the board should develop a leadership succession plan and emergency policies.
Choreograph teamwork for major improvements
Although nonprofits have separate spheres for executives and boards, in reality the jobs often overlap. Your board members, for example, may be expected to court big donors and assume such operational responsibilities as organizing fundraisers and contacting grant-making organizations about funding.
Similarly, your ED doesn’t determine your board’s meeting agendas, but his or her input is essential if the board is to focus on your organization’s critical issues. While your board members should never act as an ED’s rubber stamp, they must recognize that the ED is probably better acquainted with your organization’s most pressing needs. What’s more, your board needs to create an environment that invites your ED to seek its assistance when he or she doesn’t have time to solve a problem or simply can’t solve it alone.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
You can’t control the actions of your organization’s board of directors. But you can set the stage for how they perform. Communication is key. Ask for what you want — you just might get it!