By Makiyah Moody, Governance Initiatives Director
My grandmother used to say that it only takes a spark to get the fire going. In my experience, it only takes one toxic board member to lead a board to spiral into dysfunction. I’ve worked with dozens of nonprofit boards and remain intrigued by the challenges that emerge when trying to get each board member to row in the same direction. The good news is there are plenty of resources to enhance board effectiveness and alignment, though the will doesn’t always exist within the board.
Below are five elements that cripple boards and hinder them from achieving their aspirations. If any of these sound familiar, be proactive in nipping them in the bud.
- Ego Overload: I would argue that most board members dedicate their time and talent based on altruistic motives. They want the community to be better and believe the nonprofit they help govern is making a positive impact. However, there are definitely other board members who have super-sized egos, lack self-awareness and use board membership as a bully pit. You’ll recognize these board members as the ones who drown out other voices during discussions since they’ve got all the answers. Ego leads board members to be dismissive of dissent and healthy debate.
Recommendation: If a board member hijacks meetings with endless soliloquys, consider instituting a rule that board members may not speak twice until each board member has spoken once. The strength of the board lies in diversity of thought, which must have a mic available to amplify those insights.
- Lack of Critical Inquiry: Questions make the world turn – and board members who ask critical questions elevate the discourse, disrupt groupthink and positively impact a board’s work. When conducting board meeting observations, I make note of how much of the meeting time is spent asking questions. I am often struck by the majority of meeting time spent on perfunctory checklist items instead of assessing strategic priorities.
“Highly effective boards have a culture of engagement built upon a commitment to inquiry-knowing that it is better to ask the hard questions within the structure of the board’s meetings than to publicly critique board decisions after the fact.” (Excerpt from The 10 Habits of Highly Effective Boards)
Recommendation: Board members should prepare for board meetings with care and diligence. Pre-reading the board packet, making notes in the margins about concerns or matters that require more clarity, and vocalizing those concerns are necessary steps for a board member to fulfill her duty of care. Better preparation leads to better questions which ultimately help the organization stay on course.
- Social Loafing: We’ve all had the experience of working on a team where someone didn’t pull his weight. No doubt it was a frustrating and less than efficient process. Social loafing is the phenomenon of people exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone. The absentee board member is a social loafer. The fundraising committee chair who abdicates all of her responsibility to the development director is a social loafer. This tendency is a drain on an effective governing board that stifles progress.
Recommendation: Set clear performance expectations that articulate what board members are responsible to do and by when. Have accountability measures in place to ensure that there is equity in the work load. Intentionality about role clarity and responsibilities assists with board member retention.
- Cliques: Positive relationships are the stuff great boards are made of, but too much of a good thing can become a detriment. When boards have cliques – a subset of the board that spends time together, hoards information, and is slow to be transparent with other board members – those relationships become a liability. The strength and power of the board is as a collective. Three maverick board members who attempt governance outside of the structure of board and committee meetings is poisonous.
Recommendation: According to Leading with Intent, a report published by BoardSource, “Best-in-class boards pay attention to culture and dynamics.” The governance committee must create systems to alleviate the tendency for cliques to form by developing a system for knowledge management and sharing. Board members need equal access to information to make informed decisions. Additionally, when it’s observed that three board members seem to be singing to their own tune and lobbying other board members to support their pet projects, it’s incumbent upon the board chair to intervene and clarify the expectations for board membership.
- Resistance to Self-Reflect: In all facets of life, reflection is a critical component. When you know better, you do better and it’s hard to know what’s better if no time has been spent pondering that very question. Reflect. Assess. Most boards, in my experience, do not make self-reflection a key priority.
Recommendation: Cathy A. Trower, author of The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards suggests several ways to evaluate board performance: interviews, outsider observation and feedback, reflective practice, and board self-assessment surveys. Each of these tactics will result in new information for the board to determine how well its governance duties are being fulfilled. The key is to make self-reflection and board assessment a non-negotiable. For a great read on how to build exceptional nonprofit boards, I suggest Trower’s book.
Calling nonprofit board members “volunteers” is false advertising. The sheer magnitude of brain power required to serve and serve well amounts to a lot of work. The good news is there are plenty of guiding lights on the journey to help you and your fellow board members build an exceptional board.