No matter what goes wrong in a nonprofit, somehow the board gets blamed. If the executive director embezzled money, people say, "Where was the board?" Why don't they say: "Executives are always at the root of the problem. Why don't we just stop having them?" In fact, boards and board members don't get credit for some important work they do without even realizing they are doing it. Think about it:
1. Safety net: The confident trapeze artist doesn't really see the point of the expensive safety net. Few people appreciate safety nets -- or boards -- when things are going fine. But when a nonprofit's staff leadership falls off the tightrope, nonprofit boards step up, govern, fix things, and hire a new, better executive.
Think of a nonprofit scandal such as the executive of a halfway house molesting residents, or the executive of a disaster relief nonprofit embezzling money. In virtually all of these cases, the board -- whether previously asleep or lied to -- stepped in and saved things.
In a for-profit small business, such a problem would simply bring the company down. But nonprofit boards know that communities and people are hurt when nonprofits fail. Those silent, unappreciated safety nets do their jobs when called upon.
"I know I got one when I started on the board but . . . "
Here's a new idea: a Bylaws Cheat Sheet. Even if there is a copy of the bylaws handy, it's tedious to have to look over all the legalese when you want an answer to a simple question. So a nice 30 minute Do It Yourself (DIY) project is to create one:
Legal Name of Nonprofit Corporation:
Tax Exempt Determination year:
Maximum and Minimum # of Board Members:
How many years in a term?
Are there term limits? If so, how many terms?
What are the officer positions?
What is the percentage or number for a quorum?
How can the bylaws be changed?
And a Yes/No checklist:
Are board members indemnified?
Is there a procedure for removal of a board member?
Is staffing a committee more like herding cats or like herding turtles? Actually it's more like Dancing with the Stars. An important skill for nonprofit managers is knowing how to support a committee of volunteers, such as an Advisory Committee, a Board Finance Committee, or a coalition:
Staff at many levels support your organization’s volunteer committees. For instance, an administrative assistant may support a committee that is planning the spring fundraiser. Or the CFO may support the board Finance Committee. And, of course, the executive director supports the board.
When supporting a committee, the most seductive trap for a staffperson is . . .
Despite the complaints of executive directors that their boards "need training," often the most effective way to change a board is to change the people who are on it. And sometimes, a board itself realizes it needs to change faster and more dramatically than it can by adding a couple of new folks a year.
"I shouldn't be on this board anymore," commented the board member of a large national organization. "My boss' boss should be on this board."
Your board meeting is Thursday evening. On Wednesday you start getting the calls. One board member is home recuperating from surgery. Another is traveling. Yet another can’t spare the time to drive in for the meeting. Can they call in via conference call? Most everyone who works with a board or serves on a board has pondered this question. In this article, we give you some tips on how to make conference call board meetings as effective as they can be.
First, is it legal to hold board meetings by conference call?
Having 100% of board members make personal donations is a cliché we don't like. It's not a meaningful measure of board member commitment, and typically creates a situation where even the best board members have to be nagged. BUT, if you do have this requirement, here's how to make it as easy as possible.
1. The Annual Basket Pass - At the same board meeting each year (Thanksgiving is easy to remember), pass around a basket or box. The board chair (or fundraising chair) announces: "As this basket goes around, everybody has to put something in it. You can put in a check. You can put in a piece of paper with a pledge amount that you will give by December 15 of this year. Or you can put in a piece of paper that says . . .
When nonprofit executive directors say they want their boards to be more "engaged," they often really mean they want the board to have a lively discussion followed by a vote to agree with the executive director. If you're a CEO and want a weak, compliant board, try these tips:
1. Give board members too much information. One board member we know just received a board packet 1,400 pages long: almost three reams of paper! Bonus: you can complain that they never read the packet and if at any time someone claims they weren't informed of something, you can say in a very tired voice, "It was in the board materials last year."
2. Give board members very nice presents and perks. One new CEO was annoyed by the board's rambunctiousness . . .
"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.
"Conflict of loyalty" is a useful concept and term that gives us another dimension to work with than simply conflict of interest:
In our legitimate desire to avoid conflicts of interest in nonprofits, we typically make two oddly opposite mistakes:
We narrow "conflict of interest" to a strict legal definition and focus only on matters that involve personal financial gain, and
At the same time we are too quick to label any kind of relationship at all as a conflict of interest.
But often, the "conflicts of interest" in nonprofits do not involve personal financial gain. Consider the board member whose commitment to rights for people with disabilities leads her to serve on the boards of two such organizations. At Board A she hears about a new grant opportunity that is opening up at a local foundation. Should she tell Board B about it, or is she obligated not to mention it?
Or what about the deputy director of a nonprofit theater who sits on the board of a battered women's shelter: two very different fields. He's just met someone he thinks would be a great board member for either organization. Should he suggest this person to both, or to which one?
Dear Blue Avocado: I'm the chair of a nonprofit board and I have a problem. We recently voted to support a local measure that would change some zoning regulations in our county. This board member -- I'll call him "Joe" -- was outvoted (he was the only one to vote against it). The staff wrote up our position and put it on our website. Now Joe won't stop emailing the staff and telling them to change a sentence or add something or even to take it down. The staff is spending hours talking with him on the phone about it. What do I do?
Dear Board Chair:
You already know that you have to stop his behavior. The question is how.
You need to send two clear messages: one to Joe and one to the staff: