Ten Biggest Mistakes Boards and Executives Make

"To err is human," and as we all ruefully know, nonprofit board members and executive directors are typically human. Here are some of the biggest mistakes we make:

1. Falling in love with the executive director and letting love diminish critical thinking: Even if you have the world's greatest CEO, that CEO will benefit from your bringing your scrutiny and thinking to the organization's work and to his or her performance. Being in love is great, but bring up the issue of getting the dishes done.

2. Neglecting the recruitment of strong replacement board members: Let's face it, recruiting new board members isn't the most fun part of board work. For a micro-burst of motivation, think about this: what cool person would you like to meet . . . that you can contact using board recruitment as the excuse? (see Blue Ribbon Nominating Committee for Your Board)

3. Lacking a personal vision for the organization and the cause: it's not enough to support the organization's vision for itself and its work; what is your personal vision? For instance, what do you want to see occur for children with disabilities? For the national parks? For poor families? For the politics of the Middle East? If you let your personal vision inform your work on the organization's board, you will be a more strategic board member, and you'll inspire yourself. Try thinking about your personal vision for just 2 minutes.

4. Limiting your attention to your organization: A McKinsey poll of Fortune 1000 corporate boards found that board members felt they had enough (even too much) information about their companies, but hardly any information about the industries in which their companies compete. As nonprofit board members, we need information about trends in Alzheimer's care, about business models used by other legal aid societies, about how other Friends of Libraries are raising money from individuals. Sometimes we have this because we are clients, nonprofit leaders in the same field, or constituents of the cause, but if we don't, we need to insist on getting it.

5. Paying the executive either too much or little. In other words, not attending to how CEO salary affects the organization's future. If you pay too much, you can keep a semi-competent person in the job forever. If you pay too little, you will have a hard time recruiting a successor. (How Much to Pay the Executive Director)

6. Getting seduced by perks of board membership: If someone is paid significantly for being on the board (rare in nonprofits but common in foundations), or gets great perks (such as expensive gifts, meeting movie stars, getting free access to an organization-owned mountain lodge), that person will be very, very reluctant to rock the board or to contradict the CEO. As one devious new CEO put it, "I'm going to shower them with free stuff and by the end of the year they'll be eating out of my hand."

Okay, now: what are the biggest mistakes that executive directors make with their boards?

A. Treading the line between ignoring the board and resenting it: CompassPoint's national study Daring to Lead found that about one-third of nonprofit executives leave their jobs because they were fired or forced out. Being disdainful of the board -- which is so much fun over martinis at the executive director pub -- doesn't serve your organization . . . and you can unexpectedly end up getting fired.

B. Telling the board only about successes: A common executive director complaint goes something like this: "They keep expecting me to pull a rabbit out of a hat!" And how did they come to expect magic? Because we CEOs only like to tell the board about a problem if we already have a solution figured out. So after we show them rabbit after rabbit, why are we surprised when they learn to expect us to produce one?

C. Not taking responsibility for the performance of the board: If the board is going great, that's great. If it's not going great, who should do something about it? Too many executives think, "The board is awful, but it's not my job to fix it." In fact (or unfortunately), the executive's job is to work on improving any under-performing part of the organization, including the board. Just as you wouldn't step in and do the job for an under-performing manager, you can't take over for the board. But you must ask yourself, "What am I going to do to improve this situation?" (Who's Responsible for the Board?)

D. Recruiting board members that work well with you, but would be a poor committee for hiring your successor: the most important (and neglected) part of succession planning is making sure that the board is comprised of people who will be good at hiring the next CEO. If, for instance, a homeless organization has all board members who are corporate professionals, they are at risk of hiring someone completely inappropriate -- compared to a board that also had social service professionals and community leaders on the board. If you're an ED who thinks you might be leaving within the next six years: the people you are recruiting now will be on the hire committee when you leave. (Succession Planning for Nonprofits of All Sizes)

And of course, the ultimate mistake? Neglecting to forgive ourselves and others for mistakes, and then moving forward. At least until we can find some non-humans (and non-dogs) who never mess up.

Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado, and the CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits). She has made a lot of mistakes both as a board chair and as an executive director.

Comments (10)

  • Poor dog!

    Feb 12, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Once again, Jan has ventured into some of the "sacred areas" of shared governance that are all too often swept under the rug. Thank yor for putting a face on some of the issues that greatly affect nonprofits and are rarely addressed from the perspective that promotes learning and effective resolutions.

    Feb 12, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Agreed! -Kim

    Feb 13, 2013
  • Anonymous

    What about CEO's that are self absorbed, controlling, often lie, and will never leave the company? I mean that is a goal right, bring your company to the top and pass it on when it's time to leave? There is a CEO that is close to this newsletter that is such a person, only presenting rabbits to the board, so the board agrees to everything, and little do they know they are being lied to and manipulated. Maybe boards should look for more than rabbits, if that is all they have ever seen... just a thought.

    Feb 12, 2013
  • First, I would like to know who you mean when you say "CEO that is close to this newsletter." An accusation like this should be taken seriously, which I can't do if you don't give more information or your name. There are actually numerous organizations that are "close" to Blue Avocado.

    Second, boards need information that comes to them from channels OTHER THAN their executive director. As a board member, if you don't get it, it's important to ask for it or seek it on your own. If you're an executive, sometimes you'll need to show an empty hat without a rabbit in it.

    And if you're an employee with a serious complaint, find a way to express it to people who can do something about it: the board president, the state attorney general, and others.

    Feb 12, 2013
  • I worry about #3, the personal vision. I fear it's too easy for that vision to become an agenda that doesn't reflect the mission of the organization. Where's the Duty of Care, the Duty of Loyalty, the Duty of Obedience in this? Surely, I can't be the only one who has seen "visionaries" join boards and then create a kind of chaos that doesn't further the organization's mission or enhance its good functioning. Patrick de Freitas

    Feb 12, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much for this relevant and timely piece. I'm adding the link to this month's newsletter.

    Feb 14, 2013
  • Anonymous

    An organization is more than its CEO or its Board. Some of the omitted people are the CEO's management team and staff who help develop new ideas for approval and then carry out these decisions.

    Feb 15, 2013
  • Anonymous

    I love the one about the board not understanding the context within which the nonprofit operates. When I lead planning retreats, I give board members assignments ahead of time to discover that context for themselves. Call other organizations with similar missions to find out what they've been experiencing or learning, and what distinctions they see among the players in that field. Talk with legislators, funders, academics, researchers or national associations to discover trends, projections or best practices in the field. Find out how shifts in the community's demography or the economy or the legislative environment are affecting your work. Staff may know these things, and may have shared them with the board, but when board members discover them and share them with their peers, the information takes on new meaning. Try it! (more suggestions here: http://www.susanhowlett.com/assets/Planning_Assignments_for_Board_Member...)

    Feb 16, 2013
  • Anonymous

    More board members should talk to the workers in the organization to get a clear picture of what's going on

    Feb 25, 2013

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