Dysfunctional Levels in Nonprofit Boards & Organizations.

Dysfunctional Levels in Nonprofit Boards & Organizations.

By: Eugene Fram

Viewer favorite updated and revised. (/Strong)

Article and studies from a Google search on “Dysfunctions in Nonprofit Boards & Organizations,” yields 543.000 items in .46 of a second. These items show dysfunctions on charter school boards, church boards, healthcare boards, trade associations, etc.

Rick Moyers, a well-known nonprofit commentator and nonprofit researcher, concluded:

“A decade’s worth of research suggests that board performance is at best uneven and at worst highly dysfunctional. ….. The experiences of serving on a board — unless it is high functioning, superbly led, supported by a skilled staff and working in a true partnership with the executive – is quite the opposite of engaging.”

These data and comments can lead one to conclude that all nonprofit boards are dysfunctional. I suggest that nonprofit boards can generate a range of dysfunctional behavioral outcomes, but the staff can muddle through and continue to adequately serve clients.

Mildly Dysfunctional: Board meeting attendance can be a problem, left unattended by the board chair and CEO. Agendas are not completed within the meeting time frame. Strategic planning takes place once a year with little reference to it between annual meeting retreats. Goals are established without measured outcomes.
On the other hand, budgets and finances are reasonably well handled. Incremental growth each year is modest. Board recruitment takes place largely based on board contacts and friendships, with a few recommendations by the CEO. Most everyone on the board is mildly or fully dedicated to the organization’s mission.

Moderately Dysfunctional: All of the above dysfunctions, plus one or more of the following ones:

• The board chair and/or the CEO receive heightened deference in board discussions.
• Important decisions are made without full participation by all board members. One of two directors set the tone for the discussions and the outcomes.
• Either the board chair or CEO has inadequate backgrounds to develop a robust board. Nearly all agenda topics center on operational issues.
• The board does not trust the CEO but is unwilling to take action to remove him or her.
• The mission is not clearly defined and “mission creep” can be a problem.
In this instance, the staff can be productive, if some managers are able to isolate staff from the board dysfunctions.

Highly Dysfunctional: Many of the following board behaviors are exhibited:

• The board is divided into unyielding factions, a la the current US congress.
• Board discussions go beyond civil discourse into personal barbs, often disguised as humor.
• Board committees are not functioning properly. Important decisions are often delayed for a year or more.
• Rumors about the board conflicts are reaching funders, who are asking questions about the rumors.
• It is becoming difficult to recruit talented board members or professional personnel.
• The board chair and other directors refuse to acknowledge the problems.

There is little that the staff can do in this situation, except to hope for a funding angel to cover the financial problems that will develop. However, I did observe one organization that recovered from such highly dysfunctional board behaviors and finally succeeded in recruiting more talented board members. It also adopted a new governance format. The change led to some directors to resign. (One was insisting that the directors should evaluate individual staff personnel!) However the mistrust between the board and staff, as a result of the dysfunctional board behaviors, continued for decades.


  1. Gene, This is an “o’l timers response”…..after 30+ years running large United Way organizations, a thing of the past, and another fifteen to twenty yrs as a consultant, still working, I have written on this subject a number of times……..Boards, as a rule, are not well recruited nor trained and, of course, not well utilized, and I blame this on the professional staff. Staff today are not very well trained nor do they really understand the concept of “volunteerism”…..this coupled with the overt influence of the business community upon not for profits, who also don’t understand the basic differences between “Business” and “Not For Profits”……have created this problem. I’d be happy to share a couple articles I’ve written on this subject.


  2. This description of NFP dysfunctional Board does not only apply to the United States – it certainly is a reflection of the nature of NFP Boards in Australia although not much it written on the subject here. It is a true description of the nature of all not for profit Boards that I have experienced overt the last 30 years. So we really have not come along way only describing the problem.

    In many cases the CEO or the Chairman is to blame because of their limited understanding of how NFP Boards function should function. In Australia there is a general consensus that a dysfunctional Board problem with be solved through regulation and education of Boards. However the regulators have limited resources to ensure compliance and the education is limited to Board governance. The driving force for this change will come about only when Boards can assess their own performance and level of dysfunction and change accordingly


    1. Nick Thanks for enhancing the discussion. Much of what you describe is also true of the U.S., especially with associations. The president or chief volunteer often only serves for one year, and the whole association looks at the chief operating officer as a servant to do their bidding. No a healthy organizational situation for employing professional people with some creativity and strategic viewpoints.


  3. As a fellow Australian I agree with Nick Koerbin’s comments about dysfunctions in Australian nonprofit boards. I recently carried out a research project to identify and measure management deficiencies in individual nonprofit board members. This study found that the competencies and personal attributes needed for efficient management performance are, in general, not balanced across members of the board. Indeed, for small to medium sized NPOs, the distribution of the overall level of individual management efficiency was found to be bi-modal with board members falling into two distinct groups: those who were assessed to be performing at a high level of efficiency and those whose management performance was assessed to be poor. It was also found that, in a high proportion of boards, a “strong carry the weak” situation exists with two or three individuals with a high level of management skills, management experience and relevant knowledge compensating for the lack of skills, experience and knowledge of the other board members.


      1. This link will take you to an article published in the European Journal of Social and Behavioural Sciences which provides a brief outline of the heuristic model I developed to assess individual management deficiency: http://www.futureacademy.org.uk/files/menu_items/other/ejsbs146.pdf
        The complete outline of my research, including my findings, is contained in my thesis “Identifying and Measuring Management Deficiencies in Non-profit Associations” which is available as an ebook in the University of Southern Queensland library.


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