Most Common Board and Board Member Mess Ups

The Ten Stupid Things That Board Members Do to Mess Up Their Organizations (and How to Avoid Them)

1. Members join boards of organizations they don’t really care about. We fail to commit and fail to be passionate. The idea still exists that service on a board of directors is an “honorary” recognition, and it is not – it IS a lot of work and a serious challenge to lead through effective governance.

2. Members think that showing up for board meetings is the extent of their obligation, when membership entails more. The rule of thumb for a well-running organization is that a minimum six hours per month should be spent in board activity (credit Jeff Pryor at Anschutz Family Foundation):

2 hours at board meetings

2 hours in committee work

2 hours in outreach (marketing, public relations, fund raising).

In reaching this level of commitment, understanding when you’re “wearing your board member hat” and when you’re “wearing your volunteer hat.” Additionally, members need to remember that efforts made by committees involve lots of hard work and should not be changed. Full boards often will want to change the decisions of committees without full knowledge of committee research and discussion. Let the committees do their jobs!

3. Board members don’t prepare to do the job correctly. There is a general tendency to NOT prepare for board meetings (reading materials, etc.) and a lack of understanding the role of governance, which is to establish the proper controls to allow the organization’s work to be done in a cost effective, responsible manner. Board members don’t always see “the big picture,” which is their role – to protect and promote the mission of the organization.

4. Board members don’t understand budgets and other financial presentations, leaving it to others to make sure funds are in place and being wisely spent. These same members are shocked when the organization is “in the red” or, worse yet, the victim of an on-going misuse or theft of funds. Boards have a strong fiduciary responsibility within nonprofit organizations, and each member needs to have a clear understanding of how monies are being brought in, managed and spent.

5. Members think that “the bottom line” in an organization is its financial status. In any nonprofit organization, there are two bottom lines: the finances and the mission. All programs and initiatives should be weighed in financial terms, as well as by how they serve the mission.

6. Board members fail to speak up, when every indicator says that s/he should. Members fail to ask questions. Members fail to “rock the boat” as it sinks deep into the ocean. It is the responsibility of each member to ask questions and speak his or her mind, leading to knowledgeable and informed decisions.

7. Board members don’t do their duty to give, get AND get off! This means giving personally – financially, expertise, time – getting others to contribute the same, and getting off the board when it’s time. Yes, fund raising and term limits are minimal expectations of the job.

8. Board members hire, retain and put up with the wrong executive director. We expect too little of this person. We know we’re micro-managing, and it’s because the director isn’t getting the job done. The board needs to set roles that are clearly defined, and regularly “check in” to make sure that the Board is doing board work, the staff doing staff work.

9. Board members fail to be involved in long-range planning, sometimes not looking to the future at all. Board meetings are spent talking about past progress and what already has happened. The board needs to take its responsibility of long-range planning very seriously, setting a course for the future, and then spend significant time looking ever-forward at board meetings.

10. Board members engage in “parking lot conversations.” It is frustrating for both staff and other board members when conversations occur and “unofficial” decisions are made after or between meetings. Board members’ opinions need to be heard at meetings, not in closed door or under-the-table discussions.

The Ten Stupid Things That Organizations Do to Drive Off Good Board Members (and How to Avoid Them)  

1.  We Don’t Set Clear and Reasonable Expectations…Nor Deliver on Board Members’ Reasonable Expectations:  Board members often are “in the dark” as to what they are supposed to do in the course of their board service.  The internal and external job duties and not clearly articulated, and there are no systems in place for accountability.  From conflicts of interest to time commitment to legal liabilities, organizations often immerse board members in a very hazy world. 
Further, organizations sometimes retain staff professionals that do not engender board confidence.  There is no indication that the work of the organization will be carried out in an effective and efficient manner.  Executive directors will operate in a way that does not honor the policies that have been set, nor the decisions the board has made.
“Tell us what you expect, and what we can expect” is the common cry of board members.
2.  We Don’t Have Good Systems and Tools to Welcome, Orient and Train Board Members:  Organizations make involvement awkward from the beginning, fretting over “How do we recruit board members – and give them enough information about us to make an informed choice – when we’re not really sure that we want them?”  Once new board members sign up, the organization fails to welcome them and introduce them to fellow board members.  Organizations do not provide a thorough orientation and ongoing/periodic training, or even a board manual that is filled with up-to-date and relevant information about the organization, its history/mission/vision and current work.  On many occasions, there is not “safe” environment where board members can freely exchange ideas and opinions.
3.  We Don’t Engage Members to Their “Highest and Best” Use:  This mistake manifests itself in numerous ways.  One is that organizations assign board members to tasks that they don’t know how to or like to do, thereby dishonoring the individuals’ personal interests; in other words, we don’t “play to their strengths.”  This is most evident in how quality hands-on volunteers are “rewarded” by being asked to serve on the board.
The Executive Director often acts as the Lone Ranger – really not all that interested in working with a board and using its members to further the organization.  Board members are not encouraged to speak up or participate in meaningful decisions.  The “not urgent and not important” work is thrown to the board as the staff leadership finds other duties “easier to do myself.”
Worst case scenario, there is no leadership at the staff level, and the board is not engaged to provide it.
4.  We Don’t Provide or Encourage a Clear and Stimulating Mission, Vision and Strategy for Pursuit of the Organization’s Purpose:  There is no strategic plan, no vision for the coming year, and the mission hasn’t been revisited in years.  A sense of chaos prevails, and board members often question, “What are we doing here?” 
5. We Don’t Provide Meaningful Feedback as to How Well the Mission, Vision and Strategy are Being Pursued:  Client success stories are never presented, programmatic and organizational metrics for success are not set, and there is no reporting back regarding progress on benchmarks.  Another more dangerous situation occurs when the Executive Director “hides” information from the board.
“As board members, we join to ‘make a change,’ and want to know if this is actually occurring.
6.  We Expect Exorbitant Financial Support…or None at All:  Organizations tend to be on the lookout for rich board members who won’t rock the boat.  We expect that board members will pay for everything, and/or are unclear as to board financial contribution expectations.  Or, we are not confident enough in our work to actually require annual board member financial involvement, even though this has become a baseline standard among nonprofits.  We do not make it comfortable or easy – even among our best friends (board members) – to financially invest in the organization.
7.  We Expect Board Members to Do All the Fundraising…Or None at All:  There is a belief that it is the board’s job to raise funds, yet organizations do not provide the framework or systems for board member involvement and success.  Organizations recruit “bake sale board members” and expect them to sell planned giving without any tools or training.
            The opposite scenario is that we bring on members who declare in advance, “I won’t raise money” and give these folks a pass, when they can comfortably be involved in many aspects of the fundraising cycle without having to solicit funds.
8. We Don’t Have Beer at the Meetings:  Meetings are no fun.  The board members don’t know each other personally and there is no sense of camaraderie, making difficult discussions all the more difficult.  There is no built-in time for members to informally get to know each other.  Organizations hold meetings in difficult locations – including via conference call – and uninspiring environments, “retreating” in our usual windowless board room.
9.  We Waste Members’ Time With Poorly Run Meetings: The list of these infractions is long…Information is not provided in a timely manner for thoughtful review…Information is not understandable (“baffle ‘em with you-know-what”)…“Too much paper and no succinct financial statement”…Discussions rehash what committees should have been empowered to act on…Meetings are held on a schedule that does not align with what the organization needs at the time…The Chairperson does not know how to run a meeting... People ramble on and on…The agenda is vague or does not exist…There is no clarity regarding the organization’s method for making decisions…Meetings don’t start and end on time.
 “A meeting should end with a clear sense of accomplishment, and/or a clear direction from here.”
10.  Rather Than Treating Board Members as Our Best Volunteers, They are the Forgotten Volunteers:   We fail to use the same volunteer management, recognition, etc. techniques as are used to interface with other organizational volunteers.  Oftentimes, board members are our only volunteers, so the risk of burn-out becomes very high as they work on committees, fundraising, special events, grunt jobs, etc.

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