(stock photo people looking bored in a meeting)
I’ve been thinking a lot about nonprofit board structure lately. It’s not something we talk about much in the field—other than to complain about boards who don’t do enough, or overreach, or don’t understand their responsibility. And then we observe with outrage (or schadenfreude) when something goes horribly wrong at an organization: “Where WAS the board, what were they thinking?!” or “Who do they think they are?! They clearly don’t understand the mission.”
This week the New York Times published this piece by Paul Sullivan: Before Joining A Board, Size up the Job and the Mission. It has some valuable advice for prospective board members but it also makes a lot of assumptions about who board members are and should be (even just by its placement in the ‘Wealth’ section.) And then this quote:
“‘For every nonprofit, the No. 1 task at hand is having access to funding,’ he said. ‘No. 2 is you have to make sure that as board members you are good stewards of that institution.’”
This made me feel very, very sad. No wonder we have problems in the sector when we think that fundraising is MORE important than being a good steward of the institution. When it comes to boards, we seem to take a lot of things for granted—the size of our board, their role, their terms, who is and isn’t a good board candidate. There are a lot of assumptions masquerading as best practices. I think that board structure is ripe for innovation and reinvention. The truth is, in the realm of organizational change, adaptation, and mission fulfillment the board of directors is one of the most important levers we have. Here are some assumptions about boards that I am particularly bored by:
Bored Assumption #1: Who Makes a Good Board Candidate
Especially when you compare it to changing staff composition, changing your board members is actually relatively easy (please tell me you have term limits.) I’ll be blunt here: if you’re not thinking about how your board represents your community then you’re not building a relevant organization. When we are looking for new board candidates at Springboard there are two criteria:
- do you love and understand the mission deeply?
- will you energetically represent the organization to your community and your community to the organization?
By making those the only criteria, it means we are intentionally rejecting other criteria including wealth, power, and board experience. It’s not that we haven’t had some board members who are experienced or powerful, but it’s not why we picked them. It also means we are inviting and expecting board members to change the organization with their ideas, their perspectives and their questions.
Bored Assumption #2: What the Board is Supposed to do
The assumption that a board’s primary responsibility should be fundraising is such a given in the nonprofit world that we rarely question it. And we should. I’m not saying that you can’t have a good, engaged, relevant board that also helps with fundraising, but you’re likely going to be more successful on both counts if you are intentional and thoughtful about aligning your requirements for board service with your mission, values and culture.
So what does a board have to do? If you’re interested in more in depth resources about the legal requirements, MN Council of Nonprofits and Guidestar both have good resources. But the upshot is that fundraising is not a legal requirement: being steward of the financial health of the organization is.
What if we thought about building boards that deeply contribute to the fulfillment of the organization’s mission? What if we built boards that understood the guiding principles and values deeply so that they could ask energetic, hard questions that make the work stronger? What if we built boards that made our work more relevant, more useful, more engaged with the community around us? Suddenly I’m not as bored.