Over the years, we have heard many nonprofit leaders complain about various aspects of their boards. Some board members have even expressed that they dread attending board meetings or that they feel like the board is nothing but a rubber stamp for the organization’s director! To have an effective nonprofit structure, you need a healthy board with members who are engaged. This will help the organization maintain its momentum. However, too often, making sure the board is doing meaningful work is overlooked.
How the disengagement starts
Boards are still expected to fulfill their fiduciary and accountability responsibilities even when these responsibilities no longer require significant time and skill. This often happens when an organization is in a time of steady operations without major changes inside or outside of the organization. It also occurs when an organization gets larger and hires more professional staff to fulfill positions which skilled board members once volunteered in. Since board members have been acculturated into these roles, frustration and conflict with staff can result.
The result: meaningless work
In their book, Governance as Leadership, Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor pose an interesting question, “What would be the single gravest consequence to your organization if your board did not meet or conduct board business in any way for a two-year period?” Would it affect anything? Or are the responsibilities you have given your board unimportant and unfulfilling? It is vital that board members feel that their work is meaningful in order for them to desire to remain in their position.
When "Board Member" ends up meaning "Substitute Teacher"
Chait, Ryan, and Taylor go on to depict how by tasking our boards with unsatisfying work, we essentially treat them as substitute teachers, important but unfulfilling.
“In effect, by constructing their job around the fiduciary work of oversight, nonprofit organizations have placed board members in a position akin to that of a substitute teacher. As an institution, the substitute teacher works effectively. It assures school administrators and parents that children who might run amok in the absence of a teacher remain under control. But the work of the substitute teacher is singularly unattractive. Adherence to minimum standards—not trying to teach, but merely trying to keep order—is as (or more) challenging than actually teaching. It is also far less rewarding. Board members suffer from this substitute’s dilemma. Society has essentially asked trustees to keep order. As a result, board members become disengaged. The more disengaged they become, the less likely trustees are to ensure accountability—the very reason we created boards in the first place. By asking for a little, we get even less.”
Are you asking your board to just “keep order”? If so, your board members will become more and more restless. However, putting an emphasis on meaningful work will help to engage and retain qualified board members!
Jay is the Executive Director of The Center and serves on the Senior Leadership Team at Calvary Church in Souderton. Jay brings experience in the areas of ministry assessment, leadership coaching, decision-making, and strategic questioning. Jay’s degrees include a B.S. in Bible, a M.Ed in Instructional Systems Design and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Leadership.