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  • Caryn Bosson

Three Stumbling Blocks Of Nonprofit Boards

Dancing feet

In a perfect world, nonprofit board and staff leadership would coordinate as gracefully together as dance partners gliding across the ballroom floor. In reality, they often resemble that awkward couple unsure about who’s supposed to lead and who’s supposed to follow. We all know what that looks like and worse, what it feels like to get our toes stepped on.

How can boards and staff people avoid the “two-left-feet” phenomenon and manage to step together towards success?

One way is by avoiding these three stumbling blocks.

Stumbling Block #1: Unclarity about who “owns” the organization

I recently heard the grassroots fundraising expert Kim Klein speak at the Ventura County Center for Nonprofit Leadership. She said one of the most exasperating things people can say to her is, “I want to start my own nonprofit.”

“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask.

Two words: “my” and “own.”

Nonprofit organizations do not belong to anyone: they belong to us all. Nonprofits are entities formed to address a societal need or opportunity on behalf of society. Even if a nonprofit is started by a founder to fulfill his or her vision, he or she does not own the organization.

Boards of Directors are sometimes called “Trustees.” They are legally entrusted to manage the nonprofit’s resources on behalf of the public. Even if the founder is considered “the boss,” as a nonprofit chief executive he or she ultimately reports to the board through the board chair.

So does that mean that boards “own” the organization? In the ultimate sense, yes, as they are the ones to hire, compensate, evaluate, and if needed, terminate the chief executive. They are the ones ultimately accountable for fulfilling the mission, and doing so legally and financially.

But someone needs to do the day-to-day work. The chief executive/executive director leads the staff and manages the organization. When there’s a strong chief executive, especially a founder, it’s easy to understand the perception that he or she “owns” the organization. Board chairs and board members come and go, but the chief executive is the constant face to both the public and the staff, and ultimately, he/she can make or break the organization’s success.

Board-staff leader relations are an intricate dance. But once the concept of shared ownership is clear, then there can be useful conversations about who leads and who follows: how, where and when.

Stumbling Block #2: Balancing the work IN with the work ON

I once heard a piece of advice for entrepreneurs: Spend as much time working “on” the business as “in” the business. I took that as a reminder to regularly get above the daily workload to pay attention to what’s truly important.

In the usual overwhelm of nonprofit operations this can be a tough order, especially when problems are spiraling, the environment is changing, and board agendas are over-full. Even so, it’s critical that board and staff leaders take the time to review, evaluate, and recommit on a big-picture level on a regular basis. These are processes that aren’t always directly related to the tasks at hand, but they are the background that can make all the difference in accomplishing the tasks at hand.

Some examples:

  • Annually reviewing each board member’s signed agreement that clearly spells out expectations for his or her individual contributions of time, skill, connections and funds.

  • Reviewing these in a 1:1 conversation with the board chair/governance committee along with the chief executive so that progress can be celebrated and goals can be recommitted to, or adjusted for current conditions.

  • Setting as a whole board, and regularly reviewing, aggregate board goals for fundraising, meeting attendance, and other key board contributions.

  • Evaluating the the chief executive annually, with a researched compensation review.

Taking time to look at the big picture once in a while is efficient, no matter how much else is on the agenda. As Stephen Covey once said, ““If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

Stumbling Block #3: Disconnect between operations and aspirations

The strategic plan is complete and the board has signed off. Yet in meeting after meeting, the chief executive focuses on the usual reports on organizational activities and only minimal reference to the lofty goals of the strategic plan. Why does that happen?

One of the areas where board leadership and staff leadership must come together in tight harmony is in strategic planning. But too often, the planning takes place in a vacuum: without the right stakeholders, or without the right buy-in. As a result, the plan is only partially enacted.

To get back to our dance analogy, how to ensure that the board and the staff are following the same dance steps? By connecting operations and aspirations. And the way to do that is to tie the goals of the strategic plan to reports that both the staff and the board regularly monitor, evaluate, and learn from.

Ways to do that include:

  • Turning goals into SMART objectives: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound.

  • Identifying Key Performance Indicators: the few, most important outcomes that indicate progress.

  • Creating dashboards: for at-a-glance measurement of actual vs. planned results.

Back to the dance floor

When it comes to real dancing -- and real board/staff partnership -- more important than any knowledge or other factor is simply the human relationship. The more communication, flexibility, and positivity there is, the better the dance.

As boards and their staff leader continue their work together, there are always ample opportunities to improve every move.


Caryn Bosson is the Principal of Caryn Bosson Consulting, and will be leading the Board/CEO Partnership module of the Center for Nonprofit Leadership’s Board Leadership Institute at California Lutheran University’s Oxnard campus. Applications are now being accepted for the first cohort which begins January, 2018.

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