Dear board volunteers . . . There is no “I” in board.

mardi gras mask4DonorDreams blog is honored to be hosting the May 2013 Nonprofit Blog Carnival. The theme this month is “Dear board volunteer . . .” and the idea is “If you could write an anonymous letter to a nonprofit board about something they do that drives you crazy, what would that letter look like and what suggested solutions would you include?” If you are a blogger and would like more information on how to participate and submit a post for consideration, please click here to learn more.

I wanted to expand the Nonprofit Blog Carnival concept in May. So, I reached out to real non-profit people and asked them to also write an anonymous letter to their board volunteers. These folks are executive directors, fundraising professionals, board members, donors, community volunteers, consultants and front line staff. I promised everyone anonymity in exchange for their submissions.

We will celebrate May’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival on Wednesday, May 29, 2013. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this real look at real issues that our community deals with on a daily basis.

Here is today’s letter:

Dear Board Members,

I am thrilled that you hired me as your Execute Director and  entrusted me with developing this organization and moving us to the next level.  It remains an exciting opportunity for all involved. 

I have one little request to make:  please let me do my job without fear that you’ll undo the things I’m attempting to put into place.  It becomes difficult  when I begin initiating policies/procedures and practices that received BOD approval only to discover that there are conversations that occur outside the Boardroom that derail activities that are under way. 

It would also be helpful if each of you could remember that just because you have an idea or you have a strong reaction to something, you don’t necessarily get to have your way or make unilateral decisions.  We have processes for decision making within our bylaws and they are there for a purpose. 

Board meetings and committee meetings are venues for dialogue and discussion.  If you disagree, speak up so that you are heard.  If you oppose a decision, please respect your colleagues on the Board and honor the group decision.  If you continually  find yourself in disagreement with your colleagues on the Board, perhaps it is time to resign.  It could be a sign that your job as a Board member is now done.

New-to-the-party Patty

If you have some advice for the author of our anonymous letter, please be respectful and share it in the comment box at the bottom of this post.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Are some Executive Directors deliberately disengaging their non-profit board volunteers?

I’ve been on a board governance and board development kick lately. One of the big thought-leaders in this area is Richard Chait, who is a Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the authors of “Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards,” and I am a big fan of his work.

I recently came across a white paper published by Bader & Associates Governance Consultants in Potomac, MD. It is a simple to read two-page interview with Richard Chait about his book and the idea of generative conversations in the boardroom. I keep re-reading this white paper every few weeks, and it sparks a new thought every time I read it.

For example, I read the following passage this morning:

“Generative governance engages and challenges trustees intellectually. It’s what leaders do best. Yet most boards spend most of their time on fiduciary work, and they devote little time to the generative mode.”

In other words, boards are talking more about things like “can we afford that” and “where is the money coming from for that” and not talking about “are we being impacted by a larger trend and if so what should we do about it“.

When I read the aforementioned quote this morning, a wicked thought popped into my head, and I wondered if non-profit executive directors purposely keep their board volunteers focused on the “little picture” in an attempt to keep them out of the decision-making on the “big picture”?

I admit that this is a cynical thought, but I just wonder . . . Hmmmmmmm?

It is so hard to build consensus with 15 or 20 people sitting around a boardroom table. A good facilitator makes it look so easy, but it really is a gift. From what I see from many of my non-profit friends, they are hired for their fundraising and program/operations skills. I can honestly say that I’ve never worked with a search committee that said “facilitation skills” were a top skill set they were looking for in an executive director.

Is it possible that we have a dynamic where the executive director is trying to lead and it is too difficult to get the group to make big decisions on big issues; so they focus the group on tactical issues because it is easier (and important to the day-to-day functioning of the agency). When it comes time to make those big decisions, the executive director engages a few key board members who are of like mind and have influence with their peers and the decision gets made.

The net impact of this approach is widespread disengagement among board members.

OK, so here is the question this morning. Did I just wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning and cynical thoughts are rampaging through my head. Or do you think this is likely happening in a number of non-profit organizations in your community? The better question might be “what needs to be done to fix this, and are Chait’s suggestions this right perscription?”

Please join me by taking a good hard look in the mirror this morning and share your assessment in the comment box below.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

How many monks vs revolutionaries are on your non-profit board?

Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

Today, we’re focusing on a post that John titled “Forward!“. In that post, he talks about monks and revolutionaries and how crying out the battle command “FORWARD” means different things to those two groups of people. You really need to click over and read John’s post because it hits the nail on the head.

After reading “Forward!” two thoughts came into my head as it relates to non-profit organizations.

  1. The existence of the “executive committee” is dangerous, especially if you aren’t careful about who sits on that committee.
  2. There are so many different decision-making paradigms that non-profit boards can use to make tough decisions, but few ever pay attention to these options.

Executive Committee

I believe that BoardSource is the non-profit sector’s leading authority on all things board governance. In an article titled “Should nonprofit boards have execuitve committees” they say:

“An executive committee can be an efficient tool, but not every board needs one. An executive committee should never replace the full board. “

I go a little farther than my diplomatic friends at BoardSource. While there are certainly times an executive committee makes sense (go read the BoardSource article), I think those circumstances are far and in between, and most non-profit organizations should banish their executive committee to their organizational waste bin!

As John talks about in his post titled “Forward!,” your board of directors has people with different values and agendas. If you boil it down in the same way John did, then you have people who thirst for change and you have people who fight against change. This dynamic is at play all around us (turn on CNN and spend some time following the Presidential election coverage), and it is at play in your boardroom.

If you have an executive committee full of “revolutionaries” (as John puts it), then you have set-up a sitution where a small group of board members can cry “FORWARD” and drag the rest of the board of directors with them (including over a cliff). Chaos reigns!

OK, my example might be a worst-case scenario . . . but I’ve seen it happen with my own two eyes.

Perhaps, a more common situation is where board members who aren’t on the executive committee disengage and stop attending board meetings. Yes, this can be the executive committee’s fault because the disengaged board member doesn’t see the urgency in attending board meetings or ensuring that quorum is attained. Why? Because the executive committee can always meet and take care of any pressing issue.

Ugh! If you must have an executive committee, I encourage you to use it sparingly and only in emergency situation. Most importantly, pay attention to who you put on the executive committee and make sure there is a balance between “monks” and “revolutionaries”.


If you’ve heard it once in the boardroom, then you’ve heard it a million times:

“All those in favor, say aye. Those opposed say no.”

Ahhh, yes . . . .Roberts Rules of Order, bylaws, majority rule . . . BUT it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many different decision-making paradigms that exist and some are better in certain circumstances.

If you have been reading recent posts at DonorDreams blog, then you know that I am on a Tony Stoltzfus kick as I re-read his book “Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills“.  Tony suggests there are 13 different decision-making strategies and he offers a variety of questions to help frame issues when using each of those paradigms. The following are just a few that you might find interesting for your board when making certain decisions:

  • Cost: What would it cost in terms of time and resources to do this? What would it cost if you don’t do this? What’s the cost if you don’t decide or let circumstances overtake you?
  • Alignment: How well does this decision align with your passions, your values, and your calling?
  • Relational: How will this course of action affect the people around you? Who will benefit, who will be hurt?

There are 10 other decision-making strategies that can be used to frame boardroom decisions, but I won’t steal Tony’s thunder. You really need to go purchase his book!

If John is right, then you have monks and revolutionaries in your boardroom. Some decisions will be tough to make. Sure, you can tilt the scales by making sure there are enough of one kind of decision-maker voting in the manner that you want and need . . . OR . . . you can be strategic and thoughtful with how you frame issues and engage board members in approaching certain decisions.

There is nothing that says you have to always use a majorty rule voting paradigm. After all, I bet that there are certain things in your organizational bylaws that require a “super majority” vote. So, why not employ a consensus building model in certain circumstances? It isn’t right in all circumstances, but it is sometimes.

Does your organization still operate with an executive committee? If so, when do you activate that group and what decisions do they typically make? Does your board use different decision-making paradigms in certain circumstances? If so, please share the specifics and how that has worked for you. You can share all of your thoughts using the comment box below.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847