This advice column offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector .
Executive Directors — How to make your job easier when you need to "rein" in board members.
I work at a growing nonprofit with a small and passionately committed board. We have only a handful of paid staff; therefore, 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 to provide personal 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 at 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 these vital board members. What do you suggest? What strategies can we, the staff, use to build a harmonious team balance and avoid both staff and board burnout?
Kathryn says ...
I've always made it a priority to set boundaries for board members at recruitment, again at orientation and throughout their tenure. As a former Executive Director (E.D.) and a current CEO, this issue is familiar ground and, at the end of the day, it's part of my job to protect staff from board member interference in their work.
Here are five "tips" for avoiding and/or eliminating these board role confusion problems:
#1. At the initial recruitment of a potential board member, describe exactly what expectations you have of him/her and make sure the potential board member is open and prepared to receive additional training on this topic. NOTE: Before any board volunteer recruitment, talk with the Board Chair and ensure that he or she is willing to help "police" unruly board members or those who continually step out-of-line or don't follow protocol and board directives. Top management needs this back-up from the Board Chair, as the board actually comprises the E.D's bosses.
One goal of all your prep is to be on the ready — the E.D. and the Board Chair —to enforce this mantra: the board needs to stay out of day-to-day operations.
#2. Your organization should make it a inflexible practice to offer a mandatory board orientation. It's best to include all responsibilities, expectations and roles of board members or trustees in writing at this orientation. It's a good idea to ask each board member to sign-off on these policies as understood and agreed upon.
#3. A very experienced nonprofit management colleague also suggests that each board member complete regular, written self-assessments. These can serve to point out trouble spots to the entire group. Think about using a private communication platform for this purpose, one that preserves the anonymity of the survey respondent.
#4. Staff can play a key role in enlightening management about board member interference and room for improvement. I'd periodically request they anonymously complete an assessment of the board and provide space for comments.
#5. Preventing an over-zealous board member from distracting staff is, again, ultimately the E.D.'s responsibility, not yours. Along with the Board Chair, the E.D. is to blame for not making board role enforcement a standing rule. He/she needs to be prepared to be assertive and honest when talking with a board member about this behavior. NOTE: Management should put on their assertive and kind hat when speaking to this board member. Thanking the board member for all they do that is helpful is very important. The goal: the board member walks away with a straightforward understanding of the problem, suggested solution/s and an affirmation that they are still important to the organization.
I realize that interfering conduct by board members can develop slowly over time, likely because the E.D. once needed the working hands of every volunteer (including volunteer board members). Now it's time for this same E.D. to call the board together and review their roles. If he/she makes it clear that select board members are acting as an obstruction to your organization's good work (about which they deeply care), they may begin to see the light. The E.D. may also point out that board members who bypass the E.D., in order to direct the staff is fostering disrespect for the E.D.'s leadership.
In Summary ...
Part of being a good leader is knowing when to stand up for staff. Sometimes this includes re-educating your board, even if you lose a few "vital" members after clearly defining their roles. I know this may seem harsh, but this is over-stepping behavior and results in poor board member performance. These "butt-ins" should be encouraged to consider alternative positions off the board, such as volunteering for another task or recruiting additional donors.
Allowing board members to interfere in day-to-day decisions can result in great staff members prematurely jumping ship. Staff members need to know to whom they report and that should be one person (and not a board member)!
Of course we all appreciate the dedicated board member, but in your scenario they are not being helpful. Your described board member behavior is 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 the key component of the nonprofit governance team? Yes, it could and probably is.
Board volunteer burn-out is always a very real and serious concern. One-third of all volunteers leave a nonprofit within one-year, and this includes board members. Your E.D. is actually helping the board member when he or she insists on appropriate governance roles, ensuring that board and trustee time is used most effectively for the organization.
Without strong leadership, your entire organization is at risk. If the E.D. doesn't have the courage to make this stop, perhaps he or she is also in the wrong role.
If your Board Chair and E.D. won't make a change to rein in this bad board behavior, it's almost impossible for you to do it on your own. If they fail to act, this may be the time for you to look for another job at a better run nonprofit or charity.