The executive director of a relatively small nonprofit (4 full-time employees; $1.3 million budget) approached me after my presentation on high-impact board-CEO partnerships at an annual conference not long ago, wanting my thoughts on her board. I always welcome such conversations, partly because I learn a lot about what’s really going on out there in the wild and wonderful nonprofit world.
“You know, Doug,” she said, “You talked about the importance of getting our boards focused on really governing, but I’ve got one of those working boards; there’s no alternative since we’re so small.” “OK,” I responded, “I can understand. Tell me some more about your board – how it gets its governing work done.” Well, I wasn’t surprised to learn that her board was involved in doing oodles of what you might call unpaid executive work, such as raising money (mainly by planning and volunteering at the annual fund raising gala) and providing technical advice on training program content. However, not much real governing was getting done. Experience has taught me that this is typical when a nonprofit governing body gets involved in doing non-governing work. By the way, I define governing as making decisions about such critical governing “products” as an updated values and vision statement, strategic growth targets, and the annual budget, and also making judgments about financial and programmatic performance (you might want to check out my video on my High-Impact Governing Model™: http://youtu.be/Wm2X_9KS-vM).
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with your board members doing both non-governing work like raising money and true governing work like adopting next year’s operating plan and budget. But be aware of a clear and present danger: your board members getting over-involved in doing at the expense of the far more important work of governing. Experience has taught me that this is very common, primarily, I think, because non-governing doing is very familiar and concrete volunteer work, while governing tends to be more distant and abstract. Also, many board members I’ve interviewed over the years have found it difficult to distinguish between these two kinds of volunteer work.
Your challenge as a nonprofit leader is to make sure that your board does a bang-up job of governing first and foremost and doesn’t get trapped by the siren song of familiar, non-governing doing. The cost of inattention to true governing can be tremendously high: for example, failure to make a timely strategic decision to capitalize on a high-stakes opportunity to grow your membership or to launch a much-needed new service. This is one reason why many nonprofits have very wisely created a foundation to focus on fund raising, with its own board separate from the mother nonprofit corporate board. They understand that fund raising per se isn’t governing and that it can be terribly distracting to get the governing board involved in doing the highly complex and demanding executive work of raising money.
I shared this thinking with the executive director during the ten minutes or so we spent together after my program. She didn’t seem to have any trouble getting the points I made, but I can’t say for sure that she was convinced. Maybe if she reads this, she can let me know.