Your professional life springs surprises on you, but when every discovery shakes your faith in the system – so to speak – the thing that dominates your mind and feelings is: what can I do about this?
The system, in my case, is the non-profit board, which conjures images of upstanding citizens committed to forwarding the organization’s mission and safeguarding its legal and financial health as if they were overseeing a private corporation with stakeholders breathing down their neck.
I was, however, unprepared for the myriad challenges – some more significant than others – facing a non-profit board collectively, at the individual board member level, and especially later as an Executive Director and President/ CEO (staff). In the former case, the organization missed out on ‘what could have been;’ the latter led to misgivings and resignations.
After observing and reflecting on board dynamics and policy governance patterns over a 20-year career serving in a variety of non-profit roles, it dawned on me that the non-profit board is broken.
Surely, I wasn’t the only one who believed that it needed fixing. Certainly, at least some board directors recognized that they were part of a sub-optimal governance structure. And quite possibly, some of my peers may have gone through parallel experiences, realizing that it was mainly the state of affairs that had set them up for frustration and defeat, and feeling a strong desire for a much-needed transformation.
Turns out, they did. Board members and chief staff officers from across Canada, the United States, Europe and a few Asian countries that I interviewed were of the consensus that certain un-ignorable problems plaguing non-profit boards needed to be brought to light.
Before we delve into the origin and purpose of the Society of Nonprofit Board Directors, let me tell you the story of how it all began and the experiences that shaped this path in my life.
The journey began about 20 years ago when I started working with the local health community board as a board member. It was my first role as a board member. As a passionate, young volunteer with zeal, I was deeply anxious to make a difference to the cause, serve the public, and offer up my skills and ideas in service.
The individuals who made up the board were accomplished and impressive, but time revealed my ignorance of the complexities of the health system’s bureaucracy, which resisted my fervent attempts to bring transformation and progress to public health. I had set out to really make a difference by offering my input. However, the board was simply in need of a rubber stamp to officiate decisions of the Executive Director that were already decided upon. Frustrated by this state of affairs, I quit. This was my first rude awakening with different levels of governance, and it exposed me to some of the serious challenges of working within a board.
By contrast, my next experience working with a board was extensively hands-on. As a volunteer, I was responsible for several aspects of our non-profit programs which left me overworked and burned-out. I was perpetually occupied by tasks that demanded my focus and was unable to give attention to the broader goals and changes that I wished to bring within the organization. Moreover, we often struggled with a lack of funds and could never advance beyond day-to-day commitments. Unlike my previous experience, this engagement allowed my involvement, but to such an extent that I was left with no resources to truly make a difference.
I maintained my involvement with non-profits as Public Affairs Manager to explore the staff side of things. In this capacity, I had the opportunity to work alongside a variety of Executive Directors, Presidents (paid senior leader of staff), CEOs and CEOs to oversee activities at the organization. Working closely with them gave me the unique opportunity to observe and gain insights into the challenges that they typically faced.
Over time, I advanced in my credentials, designations and responsibilities to assume the role of Communications Consultant, wherein I collaborated with managers, leaders, and staff members of nonprofits. It was during this tenure that I was exposed to the conflict and misunderstandings arising from different board personalities.
On most non-profit boards, there are certain less-than-desirable personalities that typically are a cause for concern.
Here’s a summary of such personalities:
- There’s the “Johnny One-note” or the person who consistently raises the same concern in every conversation
- The “Over-boarded” person who’s well-known for sitting on boards but is always busy with other activities
- The “Devil’s Advocate” or the person who pokes holes in all suggested ideas
- The “Authority Figure” or the person who everyone’s too afraid to contradict
- And finally, the “Off-the-Wall Artist” or the person who typically suggests ideas that are not feasible or in-tune with the board’s goals
As the Chief of Communications, I worked as second-in-command and directly under the Chief Operating Officer (COO) who had to often deal with the aforementioned personalities. While I wasn’t directly impacted by the fallout of these conflicts, I had first-row seats to the damage that it inflicted on the COO.
On one side of the dispute, there were veteran board members who wished for operations and culture to remain as it always was, unable to see the need for change. On the other side, there was a board member at the executive level who had just joined the organization, who couldn’t understand its culture and deeply believed in the need for a change for which the organization wasn’t necessarily ready. The COO, in an attempt to pacify both sides, acted in a manner that he thought most constructive by implementing a strategy that considered both sides’ suggestions.
The conflict ultimately resulted in the termination of the organization’s contract with the COO. As a consequence, I was also let go of the organization in the misconceived belief made by the board members to clear the air and start afresh. This was my first real rude awakening in dealing with different personalities that typically exist within a board. I was a victim of a lack of harmony between the board and staff.
After this experience, I sought out a role that afforded me more control over such situations….or at least I thought!
I assumed the position of Executive Director of a national association in an oral healthcare profession. My initiation within this organization occurred amidst a chaotic situation. When I came into the organization, I didn’t understand or appreciate how operations were being managed.
The organization had neglected the importance of having a strong, united board and well-structured governance. The board had hired me in haste, after having let go of my predecessor. There was a staff member threatening to sue the organization for wrongful termination, a founding member organization threatening to leave – who also happened to be the organization’s biggest donor, and another hinting that they would withdraw their support. Instead of assuming leadership in the crisis, the board had leaned heavily on the idea that an experienced Executive Director would resolve the situation.
Not fully understanding the pitfall before me, I took control and made some important progress. I began by cleaning up the organization’s finances and reforming governance structures for better efficiency where possible. But I initiated these changes without taking stock of other potential challenges that might crop-up. One such challenge was the generation of a massive turnover of almost 80% on the board by my second year on the job.
Until then, I hadn’t considered or prepared for succession planning. I had disregarded the importance of communicating culture and values onto new board members. It became overly apparent to me when the turnover occurred that there’s a distinct difference between the perspectives of what paid employees perceive as reality versus those who volunteer as board members.
When the new board members were exposed to how things were being run, some voiced their disagreements, perspectives, and ideas. I had two board members critically analyzing and strongly opposing nearly all my decisions and actions. They resented that I had too much control and didn’t have the perspective as to why the previous board had hired me – largely to conduct a significant organizational turnaround.
Unable to foresee any hiccups with my involvement, I went ahead and fixed the problem as per the expectations of the previous board members. However, this action failed to pacify the board members. With the benefit of time, I can now concede that it left more of a vacuum for others to point out that I held too much power. Inevitably, the friction between the other board members and me increased. A poisonous environment manifested within the organization, acting as fuel for opposition among the board members to express themselves recklessly and in some cases, even attempts to micro-manage my everyday actions and even those of my staff.
This made me realize the importance of having good harmony among individuals who constitute a board. It also dawned upon me that having good rules designed to address potential problems would have most certainly helped avert the various crisis we faced at each board meeting.
My next role was as President of another national association. As I soon found out, this turned out to be the extreme opposite of my previous experience. The board I reported to could be characterized by disorganization and complacency. Some board members failed even to show up at board meetings that we held over the course of a year. Some board members would show-up for one meeting at best. This lack of enthusiasm was only worsened by the organization’s deficitary spending, which was the result of several questionable decisions of my predecessor and of the board.
One major challenge that I faced on this board was the excessively informal and unguarded attitude towards their primary role of fiduciary oversight. My predecessor had hired an employee we couldn’t afford. When I brought up this issue, it was met with indifference. There was a clear conflict between what I assumed to be my role as a responsible leader and what the board was expecting me to do. My efforts to regularize operations and counsel the board was responded to with a congenial, take-it-easy attitude that disregarded the fiduciary responsibility the board owed to the organization.
Unwilling to give in to the resistance, (and now, with time – perspective of my own hubris) I continued to push for better policies and decision-making for the organization that would hold us up to not only the best in national standards. As a result, my relationship with the organization came to an end.
All of these difficult experiences forced me to stop and ask myself “WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON?”
In 2015, I finally gave way to introspection so I could understand if volunteering on a board or even serving as a Chief Staff Officer was supposed to be as nerve-wracking as I had experienced. And thus began my analytical journey involving interviews with hundreds of board directors across Canada and the US.
I asked them four major questions to understand their motivation for working on a non-profit board:
1. Why does one volunteer to be on boards?
2. What motivates them to take time away from careers and family?
3. What makes for an effective board experience?
4. Why do so many boards fail to meet up to the most basic of professional standards?
What I found was astounding.
Most of these board members were facing different versions of the same problems.
Common challenges faced by board members included frustration of dealing with trolls who joined the board for the wrong reasons. Some of them joined for the aim or title, while others were not clear what their role was, couldn’t deal with the demands of the role or feared they ran the risk of burning out.
It was during fall 2017 that this realization led to the idea of having an association of Nonprofit Directors. If busy professionals on all non-profit boards across the world were dealing with the same frustrations and challenges, wouldn’t it be great if they could have a forum to safely discuss these issues and arrive at constructive solutions? Over three months, from December 2017 to February 2018, we ran a trial to explore the potential of the idea. The trial was met with an overwhelming response.
During the Winter and Spring of 2018, we conducted over six different virtual executive roundtables. Nonprofit board directors from around the world shared stories of their personal challenges. They discussed issues of how to deal with underperforming board directors, how to fundraise as a board director, and how to interact with board directors acting against an organization’s culture. The clear consensus was that collaboration of board directors dealing with the same situations could be beneficial to all participants.
During these virtual sessions, I uncovered five invaluable lessons on how to make the most of your volunteering experience on a non-profit board. Being able to share these takeaways with you is deeply satisfying.
Here they are in brief:
Number One: Recruitment is critical
It’s critical to find, recruit, and develop the right working culture of people on a board. Culture is what ties together the values and behaviour that members of a board exercise. This, in turn, can substantially affect the governance and operations of a nonprofit board. When building a working culture (especially when everyone gathered is a volunteer), it’s important to understand the purpose and existence of the board. What are you hoping to accomplish? What rules could be put into place so that members of the board can constructively contribute to the realization of those goals? These are some of the questions that you need to answer before setting out the culture for your nonprofit board.
Number Two: You really can affect change
I’ve found that you can enable change within a nonprofit, even as a volunteer. Larger, more important goals for a nonprofit such as growth in membership and revenue are ones that board members and by extension, staff are typically expected to assume responsibility for. However, as a volunteer, you could suggest strategies and insights gleaned from your day-to-day work on the board while following rules of hierarchy. As a volunteer, you can imbibe the purpose of your nonprofit and weave it into your daily tasks so that it can begin to show results on the ground level. Through transformed methods of performing daily activities, you can contribute to the generation of new memberships and revenue within your nonprofit organization.
Number Three: Get clear on roles and understand governance
Number Four: Learn to create balance, learn where and how to delegate, and above all, don’t burn out!
When volunteering your time for nonprofit activities, it’s important to create a proper balance to succeed in your career, life, and board experience. Without this balance, you could lean too heavily to one segment of your life and burnout in the long run. If you are exhausted and burnt out, it’s very likely that you could end up losing motivation or losing sight of your goals. That’s why it’s critical to set boundaries and assess your physical and mental limits so you can constructively contribute to all three aspects of your life.
Number Five: Learn to how to read a financial statement and not just the numbers but also learn what’s behind them.
Finally, it’s important to understand your nonprofit’s financial statements. It’s not enough to pass it off to a subordinate without knowing its significance. This could lead to unadvisable spending, and you could lose track of financials in the long run. Even if it takes you substantial time, invest to understand how to read your nonprofit financial statements.
That said, it’s also important to know how to run a board in a manner that keeps members engaged. Understand the personalities of everyone on your team, and the dynamics that exist between them. You need to devise activities that improve the rapport between team members, so you can elevate the way your board performs and achieve all of your goals.
There’s a lot to learn about volunteering on nonprofit boards that can transform your volunteering experience. By networking with other executives or board directors who are facing the same challenges as you, you can better prepare yourself to resolve these situations. That’s precisely why we started the Society of Nonprofit Directors. In the next few years, we hope to reach out to more nonprofit board members and enable them to create more fulfilling volunteering experiences.