Pink Slip to Nonprofit Board Members: "You're Fired!"

What if nonprofit board members could be fired? I don’t mean simply not renewing their terms, I’m talking about “You’re fired.”

Most of us sign up to be nonprofit board members because we genuinely want to make a difference for a mission and to work around people that inspire us. We agree to govern, to present an accountable face to our charities. Like it or not, we have to try to help raise money.

Yelling you’re fired may work for TV bombast, but in the real world such phrases are the antithesis of success, either in the office or the board room.

Still, there’s a big little secret about our do-good sector festering just beneath the surface: lots of us question whether our system of nonprofit board governance works.

Why?

Board members are volunteers who, by design, leave their board room after a meeting and go back to their lives. But running a nonprofit means managing a business—a nonprofit business, yes, but a business nonetheless. This work is trickier and more demanding than most imagine. When confronted by critical policy decisions, any poor timing or slow responsiveness on the part of board leadership can break an operation’s back. Board strategic and future budget planning are critical for staff leadership to engage with community partners, manage staff, and assure credible fundraising and a sound financial future. When faced by critical policy decisions, misplaced board talents, expertise, and intentions that don’t necessarily translate to the nonprofit’s culture and needs can jam up an organization’s gears: Just because it works in government or the business sector doesn’t translate as success in the nonprofit world. And when alarms start sounding, staff entrenched in the mission may be wrongly ignored by their board, or misunderstood, or foolishly sidelined. It can be enough to make even the most mild-mannered executives want to scream at that board: “You’re fired!”

Libraries of information have been written about nonprofit boards, but one concept, in my experience, sets the tone for success. It’s about power, and the management of that power, between the board and the staff.

Successful nonprofits poised to compete for resources and credibility have boards that manage their power wisely. It can be as tricky as teaching an elephant to dance—one who knows exactly how to swing his weight around and to avoid stepping on toes. When that elephant is in the room and its power dances adeptly with staff leadership, magic happens.

Unfortunately, staff executive leadership is often immobilized to manage effectively up to that board power. Nothing is said or heard, but poor decisions are made. Good nonprofits can collapse easily and quickly.

I’ll be talking about dancing with the elephant next time—both leading and following—and about power ratios. What do you believe is the effective balance-of-power ratio between the board and the executive staff leadership of a successful nonprofit? Leave me a comment to let me know!

There are no wrong answers, no pink slips. What do you think?