Dysfunctional Levels in Nonprofit Boards & Organizations.


id-100145240By: Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

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Article and studies from a Google search on “ Dysfunctions in Nonprofit Boards & Organizations,” yields 478,000 items in .69 of a second. These items show dysfunctions on charter school boards, church boards, healthcare boards, trade associations, etc.

These data 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 occasionally with little reference to it between annual meeting retreats. Sometimes a  Strengths & Weaknesses analysis (SWAT) takes the place of strategic planning.  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.  New board members are quickly acculturated into the legacy culture of the nonprofit.

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.  Missed opportunities because of excessive analysis.

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. Examining the board, in its totality, makes sense rather than focus on the dysfunctional behaviors of individual board members, as Dr. Fram presents. I also think that mildly dysfunctional boards can become more dysfunctional unless the problems they are having are properly and effectively mitigated.


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