Does your organization revolve around a certain dynamic leader or long-time donor or family? Does this adapted article speak at all to your theater, arts or performing group?
Adapted from an article by James E. Canales, concerning a certain abuse scandal and a certain university, but stripped to its core principles for application to other organizations.
Lessons that nonprofit leaders should have been learning from previous conflicts and difficult situations continue to go unheeded.
Once again, we learn that the board was uninformed and disengaged; we read about a patent disdain for transparency; and we discover a culture that—in discouraging any dissent—created the preconditions for precisely these events.
The key takeaway for nonprofit leaders and boards is the patent lack of oversight—some of it perhaps intentional—by the leadership, from the board to the administration.
These events afford an opportunity for leaders of organizations dedicated to the common good to ensure that all nonprofit organizations have the policies, systems, and cultures in place so situations like this never occur again.
To do this, we must banish the culture of deference that is too often found in our boardrooms.
Too many nonprofit officers are unwilling or afraid to challenge the board. Or, too many Board members are too willing to bow to a nonprofit’s president and/or most-respected director or staff member.
In such an unhealthy situation, questions from the board are discouraged, even viewed as meddlesome. This suggests that the Board members’ allegiance is not to the organization, as the law requires, but to its popular leader.
To guard against this culture of deference, nonprofit leaders—both board members and officers/directors/staff—must actively shape a culture of partnership. Following are steps each side can take to do that. Boards must:
• Ensure that the identification, selection, and orientation of new Board members expands, rather than narrows, the experience and perspectives of the board.
Gender, ethnic, and racial diversity are all important, but diversity is also about getting people with different experiences and skills at the table.
Too often, we have seen the downsides of boards with many overlapping relationships on other committees or responsibilities or in other social settings, which can limit Board members’ willingness to ask tough questions and hold the President or Director accountable. We must go beyond our circles of comfort in identifying new Board members.
• Conduct performance reviews of the officers/directors/staff and insist on a robust process for feedback and discussion.
While this is common sense, repeated throughout all the handbooks and advice about good governance, it is not as prevalent a practice as it should be. Let’s even assume that the board possesses immense confidence in and support for all of its officers and each of its directors and staff members. I would argue that such a circumstance makes a formal review process even more important.
Reviews offer an opportunity for candid, open, and vigorous discussion about how the board, the officers, and the production staff can and should be working together more effectively, and to the extent there may be concerns about how powerful a particular leader has become, a review helps to clarify roles (the leader does report to the board, after all) and can create opportunities for dialogue.
• Ask informed, constructive questions and insist on answers.
Board members have every right—indeed, they have an obligation—to ask questions, to understand issues, and to be informed. And when information is not forthcoming, they must insist on answers.
If such questions are viewed as intrusive or inappropriate, then the board should have processes in place for its managing officers to raise such concerns openly and forthrightly.
Boards and Presidents/CEO’s should take the following steps
• Shape board agendas to foster open and candid discussion, encourage constructive input and questions, and help the board add value. The Chairman of the board should approach each board meeting with the question: What can the board do to help our institution at this time?
As Presidents, we should articulate clearly what we need and want from the board and frame discussions in a way that helps us get what we need.
While educational sessions to inform the board are important, we need to be sure that board meetings are not so packed with presentations and reports that there isn’t time and space for open discussion of the critical issues facing the organization.
• Demonstrate respect for the board, and if you believe the board is not measuring up, work actively to do something about it.
Many officers talk about “managing” their boards. Boards should not be managed; they should be engaged. And the President has an obligation not just to find ways to get the board involved but to demonstrate respect for Board members in their interactions with other staff.
Officers (and especially production staff) who believe their boards do not deserve respect or are incapable of adding value should figure out how to fix that. Work with your board leaders to press them to conduct a self-assessment, expose your board to what are widely considered to be best practices, and help the board to identify new trustees that set the right standard.
• Encourage the board to meet in routine executive sessions without the officers. This practice has the advantage of not making executive sessions anomalous, and it provides the board regular opportunities for conversation about issues or questions that the chair might later bring to the President.
Of course, it requires that the chair manage and lead the discussion in a way that can be productive and useful and that the chair or someone else fills the Managing Officers/President in on what was discussed soon after the session.
Routine executive sessions also have the benefit of providing yet another tangible sign of a constructive relationship between a board and a group of officers.
When operating at their best, boards and officers are partners, working in unison toward a shared vision for organizational success.
Neither sees the other as an impediment or obstacle; each views the other as a critical ingredient to success, and both understand who is responsible to whom. If this is not the case at your organization, now is the time, to understand why this is so and how to make it better.
This investment of time and effort today to ensure a strong, collaborative partnership between the board and officers will bring enormous payoffs in the long term.