If ever a group consistently took the heat for the
woes of the Community Benefit sector, all around the world, it is boards. These
days one can barely look at a blog or newsletter about this sector without
reading about how boards need to “shape
Executive Directors blame boards. Funders blame
boards. The media, God knows, blames boards.
They won’t fundraise. They don’t know
their jobs. They leave their brains at the door. They do things they would
never do in their own businesses.
You no doubt know the words and could sing along to
the litany of things everyone blames on boards.
One of the principles upon which the work at the
Community-Driven Institute is built is the principle that people will go where
systems lead them - that systems fail before individuals
If every board around the world is a candidate for
board development assistance, can it be that each and every one of those
millions of individual board members is at fault? Is it possible that we are,
as a species, predisposed to being bad board members?
Clearly, it is more likely that this degree of
global board dysfunction is trying to tell us something - that the system of
“nonprofit governance” as we know it is simply not
If this sector is to create an extraordinary future
for our planet, it is therefore time to re-examine the whole of what governance
It is time to stop looking at governance as a
“problem to be solved,” and instead see governance as an
“opportunity to change the world.”
It is time to focus on Governing for What
Where is Governance Aiming?
Ask board members why they join boards, and we can
be pretty confident what the answer will be: They care about the cause. They
want to make a difference.
Ask board members if that is what they talk about
at board meetings, and we all know the answer to that as
If we were to answer, in one sentence, what’s
wrong with boards, that would be it. They are not focusing on what matters most
to them, to the organization, and to their
Therefore, if our organizations are to create the
most impact possible in our communities - to create the future of our
communities and our world - it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see
that THAT is what the people at the top of the org chart must be focusing on.
After all, we get what we aim for.
So what HAS governance been aiming
To answer that, we need to look at all the
functions of being a board, and to consider where boards have been told to
Four Functions of Boards
There are four functions every board
addresses in some way or another. The board, by virtue of its place at the top
of the internal organizational chart, is accountable for each of these
Ensuring the organization is
leading the charge to create as much community impact as possible, on behalf of
the community served by the organization.
Ensuring the organization is complying with all its
organization’s work is getting done in all program / operational areas,
and ensuring that work is being done ethically, legally and
The day-to-day work of what it takes to be a
successful board (recruitment, policy-setting, etc.)
Where Are Boards Aiming Their
As we consider those 4 functions of
board work, some interesting things reveal
Only the first one -
leadership - is about creating end results on behalf of the communities our
organizations serve. Only leadership comes close to the truest definition of
governance - leading, guiding and making decisions on behalf of others. And in
a community benefit organization, that is all about community
The other three functions -
legal oversight, operational oversight, and board mechanics - are all about the
means with which the organization does its work. Is the board ensuring the
organization’s work is being done in a way that complies with the various
laws that guide how that work should be done? Is the board ensuring the
operations are running effectively, and in compliance with best practice? Is
the board ensuring it has functioning board systems, such as ongoing education
or recruitment or succession systems? Those are all about the
The vast majority - and I
mean so vast there is barely a word that describes how vast - of what boards
are taught to do, and what the various standards of excellence reward them for
doing, falls into those last three categories. If its financial house is in
order, if its HR house is in order - if all the internal means are in order,
and the board has at least talked about its mission at all during the year -
most of the checklists would say that board is indeed
In truth, an organization could be dubbed
“excellent” if it were 100% focused on all those means, providing
little benefit to the community - simply because the standards do not ask about anything but
Sometimes the absence of a focus on community end
results is due to the fact that the purveyors of checklists and standards know
what to include in checklists for the means. But they do not know what a board
might measure in the area of “community
In other cases, a governance system might tell
boards to focus on community end results, but provide little guidance in how to
actually do so in any meaningful way.
The almost total omission of community results from
the sector’s standards / workshops / classes / checklists makes clear to
boards in a way no overt instruction possibly could, that such discussions are
simply not as important as discussion of the means.
And as a result, “organizational means”
is precisely where boards are aiming.
Result of Means Emphasis
Before sharing the results of such emphasis, it
The vast majority of
amounts of their time to serve on boards
because they care about
and want to help create
That being said, there are several key results of
this despairingly overwhelming emphasis on means over
Result #1: Boards as a Squandered Resource for
Inspired Community Change
First, and most important for
those who care about creating the future of their communities: Boards could be
the inspired champions for creating significant, visionary, long term impact in
our communities. They could be the link to all the potential and all the
engaged energy of the whole community. Instead, they are (in the words of so
many board members we have worked with) “pushing papers
Result #2: Bored
Because the reason they
joined the board is so dramatically absent from what boards are told to focus
on, board members everywhere report the same symptoms: Board meetings are dull.
They are uninspired. They are focused on things board members neither
understand nor care about, even though they know they should. And half the
time, what is discussed could have been “phoned in” as it does not
change much about what the organization is doing.
Current governance systems,
therefore, take the one thing that is NOT boring - the thing that is, in fact,
universal and powerful - and relegate it to the status of non-entity at the
board table. Passion for the cause, community results, community impact,
changing lives, creating the future - these are the most energizing forces at
any board table. And yet, those forces have become the board equivalent of the
estranged sibling whose presence no one wants to admit they achingly miss at
the holiday table. Boards would love to talk about those end results, but such
discussions are routinely back-burnered in favor of the more
“important” discussions of means.
Result #3: A Minefield Within a
Means-based systems tend to
be complicated, as they are myopically focused, one by one, on the myriad means
to which a board is instructed to attend. There are financial issues and HR
issues. There are risk management issues. There are issues revolving around the
creation of policy and the delegating of responsibility - the role of the board
vs. the role of the staff. Regulatory compliance. Diversity issues. Fundraising
and investment policy. Boards spend more time asking EDs if they would please
find a boilerplate code of ethics, or personnel manual, or regulatory checklist
- boilerplate after boilerplate of the next scary-thing-du-jour.
Governance as it is currently
taught and encouraged to be practiced is the fine art of dancing in a minefield
within a minefield. And while that may be good news for governance consultants
like me, as there will always be plenty of work teaching and explaining and
fixing what’s broken, such complicated systems are not good news for our
communities, for our organizations - and certainly not for
And that leads to the final
result of the emphasis on means over ends.
Result #4: Current Governance Systems Are a
Recipe for Dysfunction
The final result is that
boards have become dysfunctional. And that is because a focus on means over
ends is a recipe for such dysfunction.
Emphasizing means over ends
is a recipe for fear, which the checklists confirm, focused as they are on the
fear-driven mandate of keeping the organization out of trouble. That risk
management checklist of all the things that could possibly go wrong is really
what the emphasis on means - legal and operational oversight - is all
That means-over-ends focus
therefore becomes a recipe for 360 degrees of fear. First boards are taught to
prevent the horrible things that could go wrong. Then, if things DO go wrong,
they are told (quite accurately) that they will be held accountable and
culpable for all those things they confessed they did not understand in the
first place, because they are, after all, just volunteers who
So, what do you get when you
mix a cup of prescription (the board must do X or Y) with a cup of fear, and
add 2 cups of complexity? You get a recipe for the symptoms of dysfunction we
all recognize - micromanagement (fear-based taking control), and
rubber-stamping, and all the other board issues the sector has been bemoaning
You get a recipe for the
hospital board client of one of my colleagues, who spent one full meeting every
year allocating hospital parking spaces. You get a recipe for boards filled
with powerful local business people who, yes, appear to be checking their
brains at the door.
This is not because they are
incompetent and not because they don’t care (which they do or they would
not be there). It is just the opposite. It is because they care deeply, they
feel overwhelmed, and they feel fearful that whatever they do, it will be the
All these results stem not from what any one board
or any one consultant or any one class or institution has done. It all stems
from a system that emphasizes the importance of means over ends. Such a system
is set up to fail, and we see it failing every day. It is a system that fails
our boards, that fails our organizations and that fails our communities.
What Is The Answer?
Boards could be the single most powerful force for
change in our sector.
That would not require changing the
currently common “corporate” structure of boards. It simply
requires realigning their focus - their primary accountability - to focus
providing extraordinary community results.
It then requires that we show boards HOW to govern
for creating extraordinary, visionary, long term impact in their communities.
It requires guiding boards back to the reason board members signed on in the
first place - inspired passion for the cause - and providing a way for that
passion to guide the rest of their work.
Such systems must be simple enough not to require
the ongoing intervention of people like me - governance consultants. Those
systems must be inspiring, rather than prescriptive; none of us likes to be
told what to do, but people who are inspired will go miles beyond what is
Those systems must stop seeing governance as a
problem-to-be-solved, and instead view governance as an opportunity to change
From there, those systems must provide simple ways
for boards to act accountably for Legal Oversight, Operational Oversight and
Board Mechanics - the means to those visionary end results. That focus would
not be on organizational means in a vacuum, but rather on "organizational means
within the context of visionary community results."
It is time the Community Benefit Sector had a
governance system that honored and inspired and encouraged and engaged board
members for what they really are - engaged community members - the most
precious commodity any organization could have!
And it is time the sector had straightforward tools
to do that job seamlessly, without fear that they have missed something that
will come back to harm them later.
So what would such a system look like? Head
to Part 2 to find out! CLICK here!