Connections - 09.29.20

The Nonprofit CEO Dilemma: How Do I Ask My Board to Improve Its Performance?

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by Dennis Miller, President, Dennis C. Miller Associates

It goes without saying that for any nonprofit organization supporting those with intellectual and developmental disabilities to be successful, there must be a great partnership between the CEO and the board. They must have a strong relationship built on mutual trust and respect and open and honest communication. They must be a shared sense of accountability and responsibility and be strategically aligned to sustain their mission and achieve their vision.

But what happens when one side feels the other “partner” is not pulling their weight? If the board feels the CEO is not performing at the level they expect, they have the authority to develop and implement a performance improvement plan and monitor the progress of the CEO’s success. But what can the CEO do if they feel the board is not performing at the level required to achieve organizational success? The board can fire the CEO, but the CEO cannot fire the board. Herein lies the nonprofit CEO dilemma.

Most of the people who serve on your board are well-meaning and care about your mission. They spend an inordinate amount of time volunteering to make a difference in the lives of those you serve. You invite them to join your board because they have a talent, track record or other indicator of success. They are good citizens and often pillars of your community. But just because they are successful in many aspects of their professional lives, does not mean they have any knowledge of nonprofit board governance best practices.

Most people who agree to serve on a nonprofit board have very little prior experience serving on a board. In addition, few organizations provide any ongoing level of board training and education beyond a brief period of board orientation. Most nonprofit organization’s board orientation program consists mostly of a few hours meeting with members of the executive leadership team and being provided with the organization’s bylaws, strategic plan and most recent audited financial statements. A few will receive a tour of the facilities and be provided with a board manual of information they will never read beyond an initial glance.

They are excited to serve on the board and look forward to attending their first meeting. Upon entering their first board meeting, they find an empty seat and sit and wait to see what happens next. Before long they might be asked to vote on a board resolution and answer in the affirmative to the question, “all in favor say aye”. They will say “aye”.

We would never consider hiring staff without some period of initial and ongoing training. Most professionals need a certain number of continuing educational units or “CEU’s”. Students who enter medical school spend four years of schooling and usually at least three years of residency before they can receive their license and practice medicine. So why don’t we make a commitment to provide training to those who agree to serve on our boards?

Five common reasons:

  • We do not think they need any training because of their professional backgrounds and status in the community. How can we tell the person who just won the “citizen of the year award” they need training upon joining our board?
  • Neither the CEO and/or the board are not very knowledgeable or experienced about board governance best practices and have not given it much thought in the first place.
  • We are just so excited that anyone with a “beating heart” has agreed to serve on our board. Why risk “making demands” on them now?
  • Some members of the board, often including the board chair, does not want any training because they think they do not need any training.
  • We do not have any money or the time to invest in board training. We are just trying to survive.

Based upon my experience of having performed numerous board and organizational performance assessments, most board members would welcome the training. They want to be positive contributors to your organization. They often feel very frustrated and disengaged when your board does not perform well. Boards that do not perform well develop a poor reputation in the community having a negative impact on board recruitment.

The solution to the nonprofit CEO dilemma is for the board leadership and CEO to realize that they have the shared responsibility to provide an ongoing program of board education and training. It takes a few years for most board members just to learn the acronyms of the sector let alone to feel a sense of self-confidence in knowing what is expected of them and what it takes to succeed as a board member.

Make a commitment now, whether you are the CEO or in a position of board leadership, to create a culture of high board performance. Boards that understand and are knowledgeable about nonprofit board governance best practices have board members who are more likely to be fully engaged and motivated. They are most likely to feel fulfilled and find their board experience motivating. They enjoy serving on the board and bring their ideas and solutions to improving the work your organization.

Like developing your organization wide leadership development program, create a year-round board governance professional development program. This program can include the following components:

  • Sign your board members up to nonprofit leadership journals and/or online newsletters.
  • Provide a newly published book on board governance that receives good reviews.
  • Invite a professional to speak at one of your board meetings.
  • Host an annual board retreat and include an aspect of board education on the agenda.
  • Invite your members to sign up to free webinars related to high performing boards.
  • Purchase for your members an online board training program that they can take from the comfort of their home or office.
  • Invite your board leaders to join you at an annual board and nonprofit leadership conference.

In today’s challenging times, investing in board governance training and education is money well spent. The ultimate beneficiaries will be those you serve.

Dennis C. Miller is the president of Dennis C. Miller Associates Inc. a nationally recognized expert on board and nonprofit leadership performance training and executive search. DCM is a Gold Partner with ANCOR.