Boards Gone Wild

A week or so ago I saw a very bizarre tweet from my local newspaper float through my Twitter feed. The tweet included a link to an article about Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors and what I’d characterize as a “board revolt”. Suddenly, I felt like one of those people standing in a grocery store check-out line staring at “The Inquirer” and unable to resist taking that ‘rag’ off the newsstand to see if aliens really did help Oprah lose 100-pounds. Have I piqued your curiosity yet? Click here to read the article from Dave Gathman of The Courier News.

It certainly seems like there is a lot going on beneath the surface, but this is what it looks like to this outside observer:

  • Key board volunteers who are also former board presidents and major donors are pissed off about a multitude of things and resigned out of frustration.
  • There is obviously conflict over rising deficits and debt.
  • There seems to be disagreement over the strategic direction of the organization.
  • There appears to be many fingers getting pointed in many directions and the resource development/fundraising department is in someone’s crosshairs.
  • I smell personality conflicts all around the table, especially between the CEO and certain board volunteers.
  • Is it just me or is the current board president kind of stirring the pot when he tells the newspaper that donations and ticket sales have picked up since these people resigned? Perhaps, there was even a schism among volunteers on the board of directors.

WOW!!! This is the stuff that Hollywood movies are made of.  OK . . . maybe I’m getting carried away, but it is at least what after-school, made-for-television movies are made of. Right?

I find myself fixated on a number of thoughts and questions such as: What should the CEO do in this situation? How does this board move forward? What do you say to your donors when your dirty laundry spills over into the local newspaper? Who is getting fired?

However, the thing that weighs most on my mind is: “Who are these people who claim to be board volunteers?” I’ve worked with between 50 – 75 different boards across a 13 state region over the last 5-years, and this isn’t a familiar sight to me. More oftentimes than not, I found boards who would rather sustain pain from medieval torture devices rather than engage in discussion and dialog that “might” possibly lead to disagreement.

So, I’d like to thank the Elgin Symphony Orchestra for renewing my faith in board governance. While the outcome might not have been desirable, I believe once again that there are passionate, mission-focused volunteers who serve on non-profit boards.

As for where to go from here, I can’t stop thinking about Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Here are just a few things I might be thinking about if I were in the CEO’s hot seat:

  • Organize a ton of donor focus groups to engage supporters in how they think the organization’s issues could be addressed
  • Develop a donor survey to secure similar input from smaller donors
  • Commission a resource development audit to dissect revenue streams and look critically at all resource development systems
  • Start down a strategic planning road and make sure the planning model you choose is very “organic”and engages ALL stakeholder groups
  • Target other influential community leaders who you’ve always wanted on your board but couldn’t (or didn’t), go talk to them about your planned response, and ask them to get involved

Regardless of the path chosen, they better do something soon or their non-profit board room might start to look something like this Saturday Night Live sketch.

What would you do if you were the CEO? Board president? Was your faith in boards “renewed” as it was in my case? Have you ever been faced with a similar situation? If so, how was your example handled? Please use the comment box to weigh-in with your thoughts. We can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
eanderson847@gmail.com
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