Tightening the Oversight of Nonprofit Boards?


By: Eugene Fram   Free Digital Image

Tightening the Oversight of Nonprofit Boards?

By: Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

Clearly the purpose of a nonprofit board is to serve the constituency that establishes it-be it community, industry, governmental unit and the like. That said, the “how” to best deliver those services is often not so clear.

The fuzziness of boundaries and lack of defined authority call for an active nonprofit system of checks and balances. For a variety of reasons this can be difficult for nonprofits to achieve.  

The Executive Committee

An executive committee, for example, can overstep its authority by assuming powers beyond its scope of responsibility. I encountered this in one executive committee when the group developed a strategic plan in an interim period where there was no permanent ED. The board then refused to share it with the incoming executive.

In another instance, an executive committee took it upon itself to appoint members of the audit committee-including outsiders who were unknown to the majority on the board.

The executive team is a broad partnership of peers-board members, those appointed to the executive committee and the CEO. The executive committee is legally responsible to act for the board between meetings-the board must ratify its decisions. But unchecked, the executive committee can assume dictatorial powers whose conclusions must be rubber-stamped by the board.

Board Recruitment

A typical nonprofit board member is often recruited from a pool of friends, relatives and colleagues, and will serve, on a median average, for four to six years. This makes it difficult to achieve rigorous debate at meetings (why risk conflicts with board colleagues?). Board members also are not as eager to thoughtfully plan for change beyond the limits of their terms. Besides discussing day-today issues, the board needs to make sure that immediate gains do not hamper long-term sustainability. 

In general, nonprofit boards also need to seek board candidates with certain behavioral characteristics, such as persons who:

  •  are adept at critical thinking and high level strategy development,
  • have substantial experiences in an allied area to the mission,
  • have a depth of experiences with both for-profit/nonprofit boards and can act as models for those having their first board nonprofit board experience. 

Recruiting these types of candidates requires vetting that goes beyond reviewing what is normally listed on resumes.  With many nonprofit board members living time compressed lifestyles, will they have the time and motivations to do the additional vetting?


The culture of micromanagement is frequently a remnant from the early startup years when board members may have performed operational duties. With some boards it becomes embedded in the culture and continues to allows the board to be involved in operational areas that should be delegated to management.  This can be a nonprofit challenge when the board enjoys the process and a weak ED likes the excuse, “the board told me to do it,” when a decision causes a problem.  Sometime the change has to wait until the ED leaves and/or the nonprofit acquires a group of  board members who can establish an organizational line between strategy development and operational tactics.





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