How Can Nonprofit Boards Overcome the Inertia of Certain Directors?
By: Eugene Fram
Making major changes in mission, board structure, management or other significant matters are difficult. The typical nonprofit board will be divided into several groups on the issue: 1) directors who want change, 2) directors opposed to change, some strongly opposed and 3) what I call “process directors,” persons uncomfortable with major decisions who always want more data or information before voting.
The first and third groups (directors who want change and process directors) will be very willing to appoint a committee to review the alternatives, but it’s up to the board chair to satisfy process directors who create obstacles.
Process directors like to sit back and examine issues, often, in my opinion, sincerely feeling that their questions allow them to be on the cusp of showing some insights that others have failed to notice. They always ask, “Have we consulted everybody?” Or say, “Let’s make sure we have considered everything.” Often they are directors who call for postponement of the vote, even after a lengthy discussion.
Process directors are well-intentioned, sincere individuals. However, the board has to be careful that these directors don’t allow the board to continually examine one angle after another until they lose sight of the board’s main job. They can keep action in limbo indefinitely! It is up to the board chair to makes certain that this does not happen. But board chairs want to develop an inclusive board where all who want to voice their views can be heard.
A certain level of board process is necessary to operate efficiently. But when it gets out of hand, it can have a serious negative effect. Boards often lose some of their best volunteers, who get frustrated and quietly resign. Their usual reason for resigning is “the pressure of job obligations.” To me, that’s a covert message that the board is getting mired in minutiae, usually initiated by process directors.
One friend recently resigned from a board, using the “job obligations” excuse. The real reason was that the executive director, a process oriented person, used board-meeting time inappropriately, including asking the full board to review detailed public relations Power Point presentations.
In another situation, I watched a board make a strategic decision involving the combining of two programs. Even after a thorough discussion of the decision, the board insisted on discussing the tactical decisions needed, all of which were the responsibility of management. The board was unable or unwilling to shed an embedded process culture that the status quo nonprofit had used for over 50 years.