The most important non-profit board responsibility

questionsOver the last few months, I’ve found myself doing a lot of boardroom trainings on the subject of “Board Roles & Responsibilities“. When facilitating this training, there are two different slides talking about the board’s collective responsibilities and the other illustrates individual board members’ responsibilities. Listed on both slides at the top of the list is the responsibility of “asking questions“.
At the end of tonight’s training, I went out for a nice steak dinner, but one thing stuck in my head and nagged me all night.

Is the list of roles/responsibilities in a particular order? If so, could it be that ‘asking questions’ is the most important of the responsibilities?

So, I tried to think of other responsibilities that might be more important:

  • Fundraising & securing resources
  • Connecting others to the agency’s mission
  • Advocating and talking about the agency throughout the community
  • Making sure laws and regulations are followed
  • Planning

While these aren’t all of the responsibilities of a non-profit board volunteer, it certainly is a good number of them. In the final analysis, all of these roles/responsibilities are important, but I honestly don’t see any of them as important as asking questions.
questions2Of course, we aren’t talking about asking questions that lend themselves to micro-management of staff. Here are just a few important questions that good boards ask:

  • Where is this agency going? What will it look like in 5-years? 10-years? 15-years? 20-years?
  • Is our organizational mission still relevant? What should it be?
  • What are our shared values?
  • What are our goals?
  • What are the community’s needs and gaps that the agency strives to address?
  • Are we using donor dollars in the manner we promised?
  • Is the agency achieving the program outcomes it promised to donors?
  • Is the organization structured in such a way to achieve what it needs to achieve?
  • Why are we doing what we’re doing? Is there a better way?
  • Do I have a conflict of interest? What should I do to mitigate my conflict?
  • Is this ethical? Is it legal? Even if it is, will supporters view it as otherwise?

rubber stamp2I tried to picture what a non-profit board might look like if it didn’t ask questions, and these words all came to mind:

  • rubber stamp
  • disengaged
  • Enron
  • WorldCom
  • Tyco

Over the years of writing this blog, I’ve tackled this subject from a number of different angles. Here are just a few posts I’ve written on the subject of asking questions:

I dunno! What do you think? Are some non-profit board responsibilities weighted more heavily than others? If so, where does “asking questions” rank?
If board members need to collectively and individually get better at asking questions, how do you train for that? Or is it something you recruit for?
Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Can you pass the board roles and responsibilities test?

Every once in a while, I get hired by an organization to help clarify board-staff roles and responsibilities. I just love jobs like this because it allows me to re-visit fun board development content. It also allows me to brush up on elementary concepts that somehow seem to get lost in the inner caverns of my brain.

One of the tools I used last week was an exercise that I dug out of my former internal consultant toolbox from when I worked at Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). It was titled “Who Does What?” It asks participants to evaluate 10 different statements and determine if it is a primary responsibility of the board, staff or both.

I would love the share the exercise with you here, but the footnotes indicate that the exercise is copyrighted material by both BGCA and BoardSource. So, in an effort to be compliant with our society’s rules, I’ve reworded some of the statements and turned it from a “fill-in the blank” exercise to a true-false exercise.

Please take a stab and answering some of the following questions about non-profit board-staff roles and responsibilities (don’t worry, no one can see how you individually answer):

[polldaddy poll=6652026]
[polldaddy poll=6652035]
[polldaddy poll=6652041]

I will share the answers with you in tomorrow’s blog post. Additionally, I’ll introduce a similar board-staff roles &responsibilities quiz specifically focused on resource development tomorrow. So, please stay tuned.

I really love using tools like these with organizations, and I especially like doing it with tenured board members who think they know this material cold, because it is a good reminder that:

  1. roles and responsibilities can have blurry edges, and
  2. it is easy for a board to find itself “out of alignment” (like an automobile) over the course of time as a result of turnover and adding new volunteers to the board

If you are a Boys & Girls Club affiliate, you can find the entire “Who Does What” tool in the “board development” section of your intranet under the “Tools & Resources” link of the Board Resource Center. If you aren’t a Boys & Girls Club, you can go to the BoardSource website and find a document in the Knowledge Center titled “What are the basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards?” and turn it into a pop quiz tool that you can use with your current and incoming board members.

How do you keep your non-profit board from becoming “unaligned” when it comes to clarity around board-staff roles & responsibilities? Do you use certain tools (e.g. an annual board re-commitment pledge, etc)? Can you share those ideas and tools with your fellow readers? Are there particular strategies that you use (e.g. using the annual meeting or board retreat to revisit these ideas, etc)?

Please scroll down to the comment section and share your thoughts, tools, and approaches with your fellow non-profit professionals. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

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