Dani Robbins

Disruption in the Nonprofit Sector

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on March 13, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Most boards plug along. I wouldn’t have believed it until I became a consultant, but it’s true. Boards are made up of good, talented, smart people who have other jobs and want to do the right thing for the agencies that they serve. They don’t always know what that is and unfortunately, sometimes their Execs don’t either. Board Development, at the end of the day, is coordinated, managed and instituted by the agency’s CEO. If that CEO doesn’t understand that board development is part of his job, it doesn’t happen.

Now if you’ve been reading for a while – and if you have, thank you – you know that most of what I write about is board development. Board development is what makes good agencies great. It’s what makes good Execs successful. It’s what makes strong agencies thrive.

Even when a board is well developed, it has to continue to be developed.  Greatness has to be cultivated.

Boards change, goals change, members overstep their roles, execs do too, and sometimes things fall apart. Many of these issues can be mitigated by on-going board development. Even on the best developed board, things still fall apart, but they fall apart less often. It is very hard to stay focused on mission when things are falling apart.

Look around your community and find a strong exec and a weak board. It won’t take you too long. At some point, either because there are no metrics, that CEO has been given no goals, has had no evaluation, or has no job description, a rift will develop between the board and the CEO, who will either be fired or quit.

Don’t believe me? Think about the last battle you’re aware of between an Exec and their board. It’s happens all the time. Every Exec I know who has been doing this job for a long time has gotten into a flat out, no holds barred, battle with members of their board. It is not usually the full board but a select group of board members. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose.

Most of us try to do it with grace and with the best interests of our agency at heart; when we’re successful, you won’t have heard about it. In fact, you may only be aware of the ones that got completely out of hand. Of the ones of which you are aware, there are ten more of which you are not.

It still happens in agencies with well developed boards, but it happens more often with less developed boards. Less developed boards have less structure and less foundation both of which lead to the overstepping of roles and boundaries, which leads to agencies losing focus.

This months nonprofit blog carnival is focusing on the question “How can we disrupt the nonprofit sector?”  The question is intended to figure out how we can create more innovative and effective organizations.

I submit the answer is leadership, board development and the introduction of generative governance.  It may not be new, but it’s still sexy.  And it’s what will make the difference for our field.

It starts, like everything else, with leadership. Boards must select leaders that can take them where they want to go. That means they have to know where they want to go and the type of leader that can get them there. For more information on selecting the right leader, please see the article Dos and Don’ts in Hiring an Executive Director and the post The Role of the Nonprofit CEO.

Board development means an agency has an intentional plan for how their board will be selected, oriented, educated, and evaluated, which will ensure the board and the agency is appropriately stewarded and perpetuated.  Even with that plan, you can’t do what you’ve always done. You have to set and meet higher standards. We as a sector have to ask the hard questions and make the hard decisions. We have to have the right leaders and the right boards that understand and fulfill their responsibilities. It is no longer enough to meet our fiduciary responsibility. If we want to change the world, we have to move into strategic and generative governance.

“Strategic and generative leadership is what engages board members and moves the needle for change in our communities.” I encourage you to pick up the book “Governance as Leadership,” by Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor, which introduced the idea of generative governance. Please also follow this link for more information.

We need some disruption!  We need better leaders, better boards, higher standards and more conversations focusing on the transformation of our agencies, our sector and our communities.

We have kids to feed, diseases to eradicate, communities to improve and people to empower. We have a world to change!

Do you agree that our sector need disruption? How would you start? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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