This advice column offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector .
Executive Directors — your job is to be assertive when appropriate
I work at a growing nonprofit with a small board. We have only a handful of paid staff. The bulk of our work is carried out by volunteers and community partners. As a result, the board tends to take a very active role in the organization, for better and for worse.
As a staff member, I'm grateful for the work they do — but all too often the board wants input on our day-to-day operations. This concerns me for three reasons:
- My sanity (multiple "supervisors" in concert and/or cacophony with the executive director)
- Their sustainability with this level of engagement (as board members, volunteers and donors)
- Our overall balance (keeping the board focused on our strategic mission and external development, not bogged down in the weeds)
I've voiced these concerns to my executive director on several occasions, but the response has been that this situation has developed over time and will take time to correct — unless we're willing to lose vital board members. What do you suggest? What strategies can we, the staff, use to build a happy team balance and avoid both staff and board burnout?
Gary says ...
I've always made it a priority to set boundaries with board members upon their recruitment. In other words, describe exactly what expectations you have and make sure they're given additional training on this topic at the orientation. However, this only works if you have a board chair and an executive director willing to "police" unruly board members or those who continually step out of line or don't follow protocol and board directives. As always, it's best to confront these types of members head on. Dropping subtle hints and trying to get others to do the dirty work rarely (if ever) works.
If your organization doesn't currently have a strong board orientation, suggest one. I'd also suggest that the board do regular written self-assessments, which can point out deficiencies to the entire group. This should be done through a polling tool that preserves the anonymity of the survey respondent. In the end, the board needs to stay out of day-to-day operations. I blame your executive director for not making that a standing rule and doing everything he or she can to enforce it.
Kathryn says ...
Allowing board members to interfere in day-to-day decisions can result in great staff members quickly jumping ship. Staff members need to know to whom they report and that should be one person (and not a board member)! And I hate to say it, but this is your executive director's fault — and his or her responsibility to change.
Of course we all appreciate the dedicated board member, but in this case it's not helpful. Your board members are hindering successful task completion. Staff morale generally suffers when the board is given permission (tacit or otherwise) to reach into your organization and influence day-to-day decisions. Plus, as you say, couldn't this behavior conceivably be distracting them from their real job as members of the governance team?
I realize that this inappropriate conduct by board members can slowly develop, likely because the executive director once needed the working hands of every volunteer (and/or their donations). Now it's time for this same executive director to call the board together and review their roles. If he or she makes it clear that they're acting as an obstruction to your good work (about which they deeply care), they may begin to see the light. The executive director may also point out that bypassing him or her to direct the staff fosters disrespect for leadership.
Part of being a leader is to know when to stand up and re-educate your board, even if you lose a few "vital" members after clearly defining their roles. I know this may seem harsh, but these are not good board members and they should be encouraged to consider alternative positions off the board, such as volunteers or donors.
Without strong leadership, your entire organization is at risk. If the executive director doesn't have the courage to make this stop, perhaps he or she is also in the wrong role!