The two most frequently identified issues hindering a nonprofit’s efforts to build capacity and sustainability are:
- An ineffective board of directors
- Lack of on-going strategic planning
How did I come to that conclusion? After working with hundreds of nonprofits, I must confess that identification of these two issues occurs when a nonprofit comes to me and says something like this, “We need help increasing our fundraising,” or “We have a problem recruiting board members.” And I can guarantee that what they think is the problem (lack of money or board members) is NOT the problem. At the heart of 99% of any nonprofit’s difficulties are the two issues I mentioned in the first paragraph.
If a board doesn’t understand their roles and responsibilities, and if there is no on-going strategic planning process, I know they won’t be able to raise enough money and they won’t be able to recruit board members.
So let’s deal with the issue of ineffective boards in this blog. Why are they ineffective? The number one reason is because neither they nor the executive director understand their roles and responsibilities. And, because they don’t know, the board members get in the way of staff, or they become a letterhead board and let staff do everything.
Unfortunately, too often we as nonprofit professionals are at fault. We have never been trained ourselves on the proper roles, responsibilities and lines of authority for board and staff so we have a tendency to figure it out as we go. Changing that is going to require some training, both of staff and board members.
Should board training be a requirement? Absolutely. But it should be a requirement for both staff and board members. And before someone is recruited as a board member they need to know they will be required to take a two-hour training course. New staff should either take the training with new board members or incorporate it into their orientation.
It will take time to change the culture of a board so that training is a requirement, but it is essential. How can board members, who are legally liable for the decision they make (or don’t make), do their job if they have not been trained? We cannot make the assumption that they know how to be a board member just because they are the CEO of a corporation.
The Two-Hour Board Training, one of the Hour Series guides (which is also available as a training module) can be a tremendous help in setting up a culture of board training in your nonprofit. One of the most important pieces in the training is the graphic below.
When a volunteer is wearing the board member “hat,” policy and governance are their primary roles. In these roles, the volunteer is legally liable for the policy decisions the board makes or does not make. In this scenario, the executive director is the only staff person over which the board has authority. All other staff is responsible to the executive director, not to the board.
The second “hat” which a volunteer board member might wear is that of a committee member. In this role, the volunteer is acting in an advisory role only. There is no line of authority over any staff. The staff person assigned to the committee is also in an advisory role to the committee and has no authority over the committee.
All staff should be told that all recommendations from a committee must go to the executive director first and will be considered based on two criteria:
- Does it bring harm to the organization?
- Does it fit with the board-approved strategic plans of the organization?
The third “hat” which a volunteer board member might wear is that of unpaid staff. In this role the board member is performing a program service (e.g. serving food at the soup kitchen or taking tickets at a concert) and is directly responsible to the staff person who has been assigned supervisory responsibility.
Clarifying for staff and volunteers which role is appropriate for what task can be done by providing specific job descriptions for all three levels, or “hats,” of responsibility. And that’s just one reason why board training should be a requirement.