Ten Myths About Nonprofit Boards

It seems as if there's always somebody at the board meeting saying, "That's what nonprofit boards are supposed to do." Sometimes it's even the executive director. Here is a quick directory to the most common myths wreaking havoc in nonprofit boardrooms:

Myth #1: Nonprofits have to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley

In the wake of the Enron and other corporate scandals, this federal act of 2002 was designed to improve accuracy of disclosures by publicly held companies. Provisions include certification of financial reports by the CEO and CFO, having non-staff on the board's Audit Committee, prohibition of personal loans to executives, and so forth.

Reality: Only two SOX provisions apply to nonprofits:

  • Stronger whistleblower protections
  • Longer retention of certain legal records

For more in Blue Avocado: Sarbanes-Oxley and Nonprofits

Myth #2: The best size for a board is 16.

Reality: Well, that's the average size. (Do you want to be average?) There isn't a "best" size for a board. Research shows that small boards think they should be bigger and big boards think they should be smaller. Size depends on:

  • What the organization needs the board to do at this time in its history
  • How many people the executive director and the staff can support
  • The size of the room at your organization where the board meets (really!)

Myth #3: The board and the executive director should have such a good working relationship that the board never needs to go into executive session.

Reality: Executive sessions are important for:

  • ED evaluation
  • Airing of tentative views
  • The board's gaining a sense of itself

And whether or not the executive director is a member of the board, the board always has the authority to go into session without staff present.

For more in Blue Avocado: Should the Board Hold Executive Sessions?

Myth #4: The annual approval of the budget is the cornerstone of the board's financial oversight.

Reality: Budget approval is often a meaningless act. Most of the time board members can't be familiar enough with details to know whether the income is accurately projected and whether the expenses represent sound choices.

Instead:

  • Give guidelines to staff for where the organization needs to be financially at the end of the year
  • Focus on monitoring through the year rather than trying to ferret out details in a complex budget before voting to approve it

See also in Blue Avocado:

Myth #5: Boards are supposed to raise money.

Reality: Actually, nonprofits are required by law to have boards (as are for-profit corporations) in order to hold the organization accountable to the public (not to raise money). And, in addition, boards don't raise money. Board members raise money.

The board approves a plan for how the organization will obtain funds (in its approval of the budget) through some combination of donations, earned income, grants, etc. Then individual board members help with the plan by obtaining donations, making connections for earned income and grants, and so forth. See also:

Myth #6: It's okay that we didn't do an evaluation of our ED this year. She's doing a good job.

Reality: You owe it to good executives to do an evaluation; they may not like it, but they'll get even better. And you owe it to the community to know whether your executive is doing the good job it looks like she is. And . . . it doesn't have to be that difficult.

Myth #7: We're an all-volunteer organization and we can't accomplish much until we have paid staff.

Reality: Many high-impact organizations don't have staff, and will never have staff. All-volunteer organizations (AVOs) often represent the community at its best, and many field hundreds of volunteers every week. If you're an AVO, take pride in what you accomplish, and don't feel that "growing up" needs to mean having paid staff.

See also: Boards of All-Volunteer Organizations

Myth #8: Committee reports should be made at every meeting.

Reality: The best thing about committee reports is that they make committee chairs attend. Instead, consider one Annual Report that rotates to each committee and that recaps goals and accomplishments. Outside of that Annual Report only allow committee reports (other than finance) that either require a board decision or that involve board members signing up for tasks.

See also: Abolish Board Committees?

Myth #9: We're too small to do succession planning," or "Our ED isn't going anywhere for awhile."

Reality: This myth reflects an outdated view of succession planning built on identifying and grooming a successor on staff. In today's nonprofits it means:

  • Making the ED job do-able (it's hard to replace a superhero, but it's not as hard to replace an excellent executive director)
  • Bringing staff salaries to competitive levels
  • Recruiting board members who will be good at hiring, not just good at supporting the current ED

See: Succession Planning for Nonprofits of All Sizes

Myth #10: Boards don't work. The whole model of nonprofit governance is broken.

Criticism of nonprofit boards (across the board) is usually one of two types:

  • Outsiders who are critical of a board that has let an executive director run a nonprofit into the ground or in the wrong direction
  • An insider -- usually the executive director -- who sees the board as standing in his or her way and additionally, as not raising money.

But most nonprofit boards work hard -- if imperfectly -- to both support and govern their organizations. And we should remember that boards are not mandated to raise money; they are mandated not simply to support an executive but to stand in the way of reckless executive decisions.

Reality: Despite all the reasons why boards shouldn't work, the reality is that thousands of boards are working, everywhere and everyday.

Churchill said: "Democracy is the worst form of government there is. Except for all the other ones." We say the same thing about nonprofit boards.

Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado, and she agrees with Winston Churchill, at least about this. Many of her articles for nonprofit boards can be found in The Best of the Board Cafe (Fieldstone).

Comments (12)

  • Hi Jan - another conversation-provoking article I am clipping and sharing with my board - thank you! Is there a typo in this paragraph, though? "But most nonprofit boards work hard -- if imperfectly -- to both support and govern their organizations. And we should remember that boards are not mandated to raise money but to RAISE (manage? protect?) money; they are mandated not simply to support an executive but to stand in the way of reckless executive decisions." - Laura, Los Altos

    Jun 28, 2011
  • This is a wonderful piece for Boards to use as a self-evaluation tool and to gather their input as a group. Thanks for sharing this, annie fritschner acfre

    Jun 28, 2011
  • Just a nit to pick -- many consultants are emphasizing that individuals on boards of directors are not MEMBERS, but actually DIRECTORS. This emphasizes the actual role which they play, and the responsibilities which go far beyond membership. It is not difficult to change the habit by referring to such individuals as "directors of XYZ" or "directors on the board of XYZ" instead of "members of the board." Some may find it clumsy or fussy. I find it has real significance with my board. Charles, Milwaukee

    Jun 29, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I agree that how you refer to board members affects how they act. But I much prefer TRUSTEES (who hold the mission of the organization in trust) to DIRECTORS (which overemphasizes "directing" the activities of the organization). "Director" is much more the language of the corporate world, and members of corporate boards typically have things to unlearn when they join a non-profit board.

    Jun 30, 2011
  • Anonymous

    When consulting with boards, I too have emphasized the trusteeship distinction, but I have always used i with the descriptor that he Board acts in "trust for the common weal, i.e., the common good." To me, the board must have loyalty to mission, but act in trusteeship for the good of the community and stakeholders. There have been too many instances where the board becomes so focused on the mission and the organization that it no longer acts for the common good. I also agree that the "corporatization" of the nonprofit board has had some adverse effects on the nonprofit sector.

    Jul 06, 2011
  • Really useful pieces of information about the role of boards, much of this gets overlooked in the hectic, day-to-day happenings of a nonprofit. Great work! Tom

    Jun 29, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Ten Myths...according to whom? It's disappointing that these views are being espoused as fact. This is one person's opinion. I'm surprised, actually, that more supporting evidence or voices are not cited. "Myth" suggests something that can be definitively disproved (or at least persuasively argued against). It concerns me that these arguments are being promoted this way, especially since a number of these points are currently highly-debated in NPO management circles.

    Jun 29, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Anonymous, What I see in these types of 'Myth' posts is not that there isn't some truth to some of the items, but that they are false limitations or ideas that should be reevaluated. #4 for instance, perhaps the annual budget approval is vital, but is it the only thing? Or #10, sure a board can slow things down or can become dysfunctional, but let's not throw the baby out w/ the bathwater. The post is meant to challenge the ruts that we can get into when we think about the purposes, functions, and helpfulness of a nonprofit board. I think it does so quite nicely.

    Jun 30, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Jan, While you are correct about the limited legal applicability of Sarbanes Oxley to non-profits, the good governance practices prescribed in the legislation are valid for any corporation. To build and maintain the trust of the community, we need to use management best practices and be held accountable to our shareholders, whether they be the public, or private investors. I have never found the Sarbanes Oxley requirements to be onerous. They require executive managers to rise to a level of professionalism that we should all strive for. Now, a tiny backroom operation non-profit may not have capacity to meet these standards. We can live with that, because there's much less at stake vis-a-vis protecting the public interest.

    Jul 01, 2011
  • Jan, Here is another HUGE myth. " A Non-Profit's board meetings are open to the public." Rick

    Jul 25, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Can a bd member be forced off the board. Scenario is we have 4 bd members. There was a motion to vote me off the bd. (I didn't agree with some policies). 2 members voted yes while the third member and I voted no. Is this a tie. Can I be voted off for disagreeing?? Also I was falsely accused of leaking bd mtg info. This is not true. Can you help?? Thanks Confused!!

    Jul 28, 2014
  • Anonymous

    The first place to look for this answer is in the ByLaws of your organization. Many forms of ByLaws contain a section discussing the removal or replacement of a director. The second place to look is in the Nonprofit Corporation laws of the state which governs the organization. Most states have specific provisions describing the circumstances under which an elected director may be removed. For example, in North Carolina it takes the same number of votes to remove a director prior to his term expiring as the minimum number of votes necessary to be elected as a director in the first place. In California the Board not only has the right to remove a director with sufficient votes, they also have the right to reduce the total number of directors on the Board and thereby remove a director whose Board slot was eliminated.

    Sep 04, 2014

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