Keeping your Board in its place

I’m currently working with an organization that is at a point in its growth where it needs stronger leadership and more clearly defined governance structures. In working with the executives around this matter, I recently participated in a client’s Board meeting to advise the members on their roles and responsibilities.

After explaining the typical duties of Board members, I thought it important to also talk about what Board members should not do, and one of the things I mentioned was not micromanaging the organization.

In my experience, too many Boards get too much in the weeds with the organization they lead. When they do, they can make life difficult for the employees: they may take away authority from management, put unnecessary pressure on staff, and remove autonomy and self-determination. As if nonprofit staff don’t have enough stress – too much work, not enough resources to get it done, and not enough pay to make non-work life enjoyable. Now we’re going to add the pressure of pleasing Board members to our plates? Yeesh.

The Board should stay at the strategic level: it should set the overall course for the organization and then make sure it stays headed in the right direction. The Board should trust the people hired to work in the organization to handle the daily execution and implementation of that strategy. These people were hired for their skills and expertise, and they know the work more intimately from spending lots of time doing it.

That’s not to say Board members can’t get involved in the work. Board members can be great resources that staff can and should turn to for assistance. I’ve seen staff reach out to certain members for help with problems, and I’ve seen individual Board members offer their wisdom, advice, or support for particular projects or programs of interest. It’s great for the staff, who could use a helping hand, and great for the Board member, who gets a better understanding of the work while becoming more personally invested in it.

How can I say that the Board should stay at the strategic level but can also get involved in the work? Where is the line?

The difference is “the Board” vs. “individual Board members.” The Board as a governing body should stay at the strategic level. Yes, the Board should be informed of details relevant to their decision-making, particularly around financials, but otherwise they don’t need to know about the day-to-day occurrences of the organization. Individual Board members can get involved with the organization as is needed or appropriate, but when the group gathers as a whole, it should focus its decision-making on a higher level.

The Board is the ultimate governing body of an organization, but in order to maximize its effectiveness, it must know its place. Executive leadership should help guide the Board to harness the collective wisdom, experience, and enthusiasm of its members, but protect the staff from any unnecessary pressures or burdens that will reduce their performance. If all goes well, staff are enabled and empowered to be more productive and more successful.



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