Nonprofit Boards 2014 – Two Recurring Concerns of Directors & Managers
Viewing responses to my blog-site over the past year has provided me with a window to topics that obviously interest nonprofit directors and managers. An unusually strong surge of viewing responses to the following two blog-posts convinced me that both issues were universal to the nonprofit governance environment.
Following are viewers’ comments (provided in italics) and my reactions from board experience.
A Nonprofit Board Has A Problem With A Recently Hired CEO – What To? Revised/Updated
The post’s content reported an actual experience of a human services nonprofit board that made a significant mistake in engaging a new chief executive to replace one who had the position for about 25 years.
It appears from the comments and the substantial number viewing the post, that many boards are missing the importance of board and organization culture when engaging a new chief executive. As one person commented: Cultural fit is paramount when bringing in new executives. Another concluded: A good organization will have both a professional yet invested board with the experience and knowledge enough to be able to fill a CEO position with the best possible outcome.
Not all volunteer boards will be blessed with such experienced board members to lead a search. Talking about the mistakes related in the case example, one respondent commented: It seems to me that the central question is whether the Board could realistically have known better? I think the answer is likely “no.”
Even if the board has had a strong search process, the prospective CEO has to make a realistic evaluation of the changes significantly needed, and his/her ability to generate change along with the time it will take to achieve the necessary outcomes. But the CEO can be at fault by not realistically assessing the challenges that he or she will encounter in the new position.
I strongly recommend that staff be consulted at appropriate points in the search process. Most nonprofits tend to be “flat” organizations and there may be one to three layers of management between the board and staff. One perceptive respondent commented: The culture shock of having a new CEO after many years (or even for a few troubled years) is very hard for staff to accept and (to which to) adjust, even if the individual is the right person.
Engaging a senior executive can be a daunting task for sophisticated boards like those responsible for Hewlett-Packard or JC Penney, remembering their recent recruiting debacles. It can even be more daunting for a volunteer nonprofit board whose directors come from widely diverse backgrounds and who may have never made a hiring decision before.
Comment from the blog-posts related to the issue of boards’ tendencies to sweep controversial issues under the rug, especially those that might lead to conflict internally or with the communities they serve.
Examples: (1 A board commonly fails to remove directors who do not meet attendance requirements at meetings. (2) A board refuses to sue a local contractor who did not perform as agreed.
The elephant in the room is that these types of reactions seem to be in the DNA of volunteer board members. These board directors abhor conflicts when they are donating their time to make a contribution. (Some might even feel they have enough conflicts in their personal or professional lives!) A cultural change is required to recruit board members who understand director responsibilities or are willing to learn about them on the job.
Viewer’s comments ranged from those who simply have observed the behavior to those who presented a psychological rationale: It seems much of this (type of director behavior) emanates from fear. Fear and insecurity within those who are in (board) power and who, subliminally and overtly, convey that anxiety to the group, resulting in peer pressure to “be quiet” and accept the status quo.
In terms of board processes one respondent noted: Boards (in my experience) seek to work by consensus rather than majority rule, even when their bylaws state that they follow Robert’s Rules of Order. With majority rule, one expects to find some division of voting results.
Possible Solutions Suggested:
How to Confront Reality
• Assess risk to take action or no action.
• Choose to remain silent or own up to our own beliefs and feelings.
• Confront the group.
The pool of volunteers ready to commit themselves to the time, talent and treasure as board members is sometimes insufficient. This means the nominating committees may be selecting from those who are readily available, not the community’s best.
The challenge for some nonprofits is to get one or two key directors who sufficiently understand board responsibilities so the board can develop solid policies and strategies.
One-way to confront group-think, peer pressure (or passive-aggressive) board members is to bring in a trained and effective facilitator.
There is a certain comfort level to rubber stamp votes. At times that may be needed. … Change is a slow process.
These perceptive comments from respondents indicated that there is much that needs to be done in the nonprofit boardrooms to develop better recruitment processes and civil, frank and open discussions among board members.
Although change is gradual with most nonprofit organizations, directors must be continuously open to new opportunities for growth that improves client services.