"When my mom applied to college, she put being popular as her main extracurricular activity." – Quinn. Too often, nonprofits recruit board members because of their social status or popularity. They justify this because of the funds and connections they may bring with them. We criticize colleges for accepting students for the same reasons. Shouldn’t nonprofits also recruit and elect board members for their abilities and desire to govern the organization?
“I'm only really generous if there's something in it for me.” – Rachel. There is a lot of truth to this statement with respect to board members. What incentives are there for board members to be active in fulfilling their governance responsibilities and otherwise providing support to the organization? Board members may be interested in educational and network opportunities as well as acknowledgement of distinguished service. They certainly want to know that they are contributing positively to advancing the organization’s mission. What disincentives are there for board members who fail to meet their basic governance responsibilities? An automatic removal process for a number of consecutive absences might encourage attendance. Alternatively, a board member might be compelled to live up to obligations of an organizational board member contract that he or she signed.
“You're a constellation of stars. I just hate to think you might be ignoring some of them because they don't burn quite as bright." – Emma. One important role of the board chair is to elicit the active participation of all board members and not allow the board to be dominated by just a few of the most assertive and/or aggressive directors. Presiding over a meeting is not simply following parliamentary procedures (like Robert’s Rules). It can be a challenging task that involves setting an agenda, getting and sharing pertinent information in advance, and managing the board members for ideas and input.
“It takes years to build a good reputation, and only seconds to destroy it.” - Will. Doesn’t this apply almost everywhere? There are so many ways to ruin an organization’s reputation. Some bad fact patterns: board members using organizational resources to benefit themselves, unprofessional conduct of staff and other representatives, negligent management of organizational resources, and failure to control the organization’s communications (including through social media vehicles). Make sure the board is attentive to the need to protect the organization’s reputation. Use Will’s statement as a talking point at one board meeting.
“In this age of celebrity sex tapes, a good reputation does no good at all.” - Rachel. Sometimes, the quick attention that a provocative communication can generate can entice organizations away from their core values (kind of what happened to "Glee" itself at times). Being innovative and taking chances can be great and may often be necessary for advancing your mission. However, while you may thoughtfully modify your values from time to time (which should involve the board’s approval), you should never compromise them. Make sure you have appropriate policies in place so employees, volunteers, and others cannot determine for themselves to send out public communications that may jeopardize the organization’s good reputation.
“Sometimes being special sucks.” - Will. A valued board member or organizational leader who is always there for others, champions the organization to the community, and finds myriad other ways to provide meaningful support to the organization may suffer burn-out, particularly if he or she feels underappreciated or has to continually deal with crisis after crisis. Take steps on the board level to mitigate the risk of losing this person. Recognize that being special can suck, but it can also reap substantial rewards.
“You're lashing out at me is fantastically compelling and inappropriate.” - Kurt. A good lashing out can make for great television. But it generally would not be appropriate at a board meeting, where divergent ideas and perspectives should be encouraged, but only if they are delivered respectfully and within an agreed upon framework. Chairs of the board or board committees should be instructed on how to effectively preside at meetings consistent with the organization’s values.
“People just don't like me.” – Rachel. “You might wanna work on that.” – Finn. If your organization goes through a multi-year decline in donations, donors, and volunteers, you might wanna work on that … at the board level.
“I have no idea what's going on in this script, and it's not in a cool Inception kind of way." - Finn. It’s important that instructions given by the board to the executive and staff through policies and directives are clear. Be careful of informal directions given by individual board members who have no inherent authority to act and conflicting directions. Make sure your policies are regularly updated and staff trained on understanding them. For example, it may be critical to educate and receive feedback from your development staff about the organization’s gift acceptance policy.
“Status is like currency. When your bank account is full, you can get away with doing just about anything. But right now, we're, like, toxic assets.” – Quinn. When your organization is riding on a wave of strong support, financial health, and programmatic achievements, it may seem like you can do just about anything – expand, pay more, leverage your status in collaborations. But waves eventually break and your organization’s status will also go through valleys as well as peaks. Make sure your plans account for these fluctuations.
“We're gonna win because we're different. That what makes us special.” – Rachel. Often, being different is essential to advancing your mission in the most effective and efficient way possible. And often it’s essential to your organization’s continued survival. Your environment is constantly changing, people are changing, and the laws are changing. How is your board addressing these changes? What is setting you apart from other organizations in a competitive environment for funding, goods, and services? What makes your organization special? Your board should be thinking about these things.
"Are you questioning my badassness? Have you seen my guns?" – Puck. Is your organization a badass? Should it be? Being a badass may be critical for organizations that do advocacy and lobbying work. And guns are the organizational muscles you are displaying which may influence who will join you and who will compromise or back down based on your perceived clout. Boards need to think about this because organizations can often best further their missions through advocacy rather than direct service.
“At what age are you allowed to look back on your life with nothing but regret?” - Emma. At certain times, your organization may need to cut a program, reduce the scope of its services or the number of people it serves, lay off staff, or even dissolve. Yet, there may not be a need to look back with regret. Sometimes, admitting failure is a sign of strength – that the organization was able to take a chance on something new that turned out not to work but would stand as a learning tool for others, or that the organization recognized its mission could be advanced more effectively and/or efficiently by another organization or another way.
If you found this fun, read Quotes from Seinfeld and Nonprofit Governance. More to come.