5 Ways to Get Your Nonprofit Board to Stop Underperforming

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A recent survey by Board Source Leading with Intent reveals that only 1 in 5 Executive Directors/CEO’s strongly agree that they have the right Board members for their organization. It concluded that if a Board isn’t thoughtfully composed as it relates to skill sets, leadership styles, and diversity of thought and background, it is less likely to excel in other areas of board performance.

Several theories have been proposed about why some nonprofit Boards underperform and remedies tested, yet the problem persists. Common among the theories are three areas that largely rate as contributing to board dysfunctionality:

Some Board members are not clear on their role and responsibilities
Negative group dynamics (e.g. personality clashes, poor communications, competitiveness)
Some Board members remain disconnected from day-to-day developments in the organization, many times by choice.
So, what can the Executive Team do to ensure Board members are contributing to the organization? Regarding the first point, written job descriptions help to let Board members know what is expected of them. Typical nonprofit Board roles/responsibilities include:

Define organization mission and overall strategy
Monitor management and hold it accountable for performance
Select, evaluate, support and if necessary replace the ED/CEO
Develop and conserve the organization’s resources, funds and other assets
Advocate for, increase knowledge of and build support for the organization in its communities
While these provide some clarity it is noted that a deeper reason for underperformance is a lack of “compelling purpose” beyond simply holding the organization accountable, as in points 2-4 above. Namely Board members are looking for opportunities to contribute expertise in other and more compelling areas.

The Board Source survey also reveals that Boards as currently staffed are generally better at technical tasks such as financial oversight and compliance than they are at adaptive work related to strategy and community outreach, areas of immense importance.

This implies that strategic and innovative thinking ability as well as relationship building are generally not among the skills being recruited. These skills contribute additional value to the organization plus offer the challenges and gratification that Board members with these talents thrive on. ” Harness that enthusiasm when it is exhibited but still have members understand that their core responsibilities must be met as well. This will also significantly reduce the likelihood of members being “disconnected”.

ED’s and CEO’s should reevaluate how they recruit Board members with strategic and innovative thinking ability and a DNA for relationship building.

For a nonprofit in its formative stage this is a unique opportunity for the founder to select initial Board members who are first and foremost a good cultural fit for the organization and who are committed to exemplary performance. Utilizing any one of a number of personality profile tests will provide additional insights, beyond intuition, as to a Board candidate’s likely fit with the organization. The test’s profile of behavior style will reveal the potential for negative behavior cited in bullet #2 above.

However for established organizations with existing Boards achieving these higher standards present other challenges primarily due to peoples’ “natural” resistance to change. When Board members have been working together for a while, they become used to “how things are done.” They may not be interested in pursuing new practices – even with a long-run promise of greater efficiency and effectiveness. Overcoming resistance can only be possible if leadership remains committed to change, and can make a compelling case which motivates all stakeholders. See Are The Right People Sitting On Your Board?

Improving Board Performance

Here are a few more actionable steps that nonprofit Boards and leaders can undertake to help maximize Board performance.

Work towards configuring the Board to include: the hard and soft skills required for your model and mission. The Board should also be reflective of compatible leadership styles as well as diversity of thought and background.

Collaborate with your Board to provide strategic input on:

Staying competitive in a changing landscape
Building on the organization’s strengths
Overcoming its weaknesses
Selecting and leveraging viable opportunities
Remediating/protecting against threats
Make Board self-assessment an ongoing obligation, see Self-Assessment for Nonprofit Boards.

For more information see Problem Boards or Board Problems?

If you need help with identifying the performance or skill sets of your current Board members or creating job descriptions to find the right people, give me a call at (312) 920-1700 or send me an email at jstoynoff@Synthesis.Biz. I’d be happy to share resources and best practices to get your organization operating at peak performance.


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