October 2012

Is there any relationship between having a strong executive director and a weak board of directors? I don’t know if I can make that sweeping generalization, but in the past few months I have met three competent, entrepreneurial executives complaining that they are having problems getting their Boards to step forward and take initiative. Let’s explore this idea further.

Being an executive of a nonprofit is being part of a team. As in football, there is the quarterback, the coach and the rest of the team. Nobody can win the game by themselves. In different nonprofits the coach and quarterback may be either the president of the board or the executive director. That’s why you have team meetings. That’s why you have huddles. Everyone has to be doing their part and understand why. If one person hogs the action, the team suffers.

What I see as the commonality in the situations that I faced was a very entrepreneurial executive — a “can do” person who sees a problem and solves it. They reach out to get donations of pro-bono goods and services or cash. They see new opportunities for relationships that would benefit the agency and they make them — and plan how these relationships can benefit the agency.  Then they report their accomplishments to the board, which applauds, and they move on.

The board members are spectators. They don’t feel involved in the decision-making process. They are presented with the final product, the new office furniture, the new relationship with a funding agency, and no one on the board was part of the process at any step of along the way.

If this happens often enough, the board members ask themselves, “Why does the executive really need me? To rubberstamp everything he/she does?” They feel no sense of ownership of the process.

This is particularly true with Founder executives. The founder was the visualizer, put the first board together, and is usually very motivated and competent. The founder seldom looks at the big picture — “I cannot really build the agency without building the Board. I may have been the inspiration and builder of the agency, but I don’t own it.  It belongs to the community, represented by the board, and I’ve got to realize that it will not grow and survive without the real investment of board members.”

I tell these executives to slow down. If they have an idea, share it before you proceed. If you are going out to get a gift, take a board member along.  Let them feel the sense of accomplishment. The board will find itself helpless when the founder finally runs out of steam and realizes he/she has done nothing to share the process with his board, and they are helpless.

One retiring exec. has most of the relationships with the major donors. What happens when he leaves? How does he quickly transfer that relationship of caring and trust as he departs? The agency stands a good chance of losing its major donors because he never built the relationship with the agency, but only with himself.

It’s very hard for the entrepreneurial personality to realize it’s not just about the final product or result, but who feels like they own it. In too many cases, it’s not the board members.

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