Are You Giving Your Board Direction?

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Good God, it’s Monday morning and I am without coffee.  Even still, all of my resilient neurons are firing and I’ve been able to roll out of bed this morning so that I could finally share a non-profit success story with you.  You’re welcome.

I, of course, have to begin this story by telling you what a complete governance nightmare this non-profit had created for itself.  The Executive Director was emotionally and mentally unstable (and that’s being generous), about a quarter of the board members were somewhat normal but had little to no training on what their role should have been and the others were too busy getting drunk and stealing each others wives and husbands to even notice that they were on a Board of Directors.

It occurred to me about 2 months in that the Board of Directors had absolutely no idea what they were doing.  Meeting after meeting would go by with directives being handed down and nothing ever seemed to get accomplished.  I finally asked the Executive Director to show me the board governance model.  When she looked at me like I’d just asked her to discover new life on distant planets, in Mandarin, I realized that she didn’t have a board governance model.  When I broadened my question to, “Do you have anything on paper that you give to a new board member when they are being considered for or accept their new position?” she was able to point me to a welcome packet.  Which consisted of two pages that basically said, “Thanks for joining our team”, in long hand.

I sat down with the ED and we discussed how we were going to give the board direction.  She shot me down a few times with my suggestions that we retrain them entirely but I wouldn’t back down.  I urged her to focus on moving forward because in the end, it was the children and families who were suffering by our lack of willingness to address these problems.

These weren’t easy conversations to have because it was extremely difficult to convey that it wasn’t a “blame game” and it didn’t matter how the mess had been created.  Unfortunately, she had the emotional intelligence of a ten-year old girl and felt attacked every time I opened my mouth.  Which was strange because I made it very clear that I wasn’t only blaming her for the disaster zone, I equally blamed the board members that she had hand picked.

Finally we agreed on a “Development Plan” that we would present to the board members at the next board meeting.  We called it a Development Plan because we figured if we came at them with a “Restructuring Everything You Do Because It’s Not Working Plan” that they might feel a little less receptive to change.

In the document we politely asked the board to take the same training that our volunteers were required to take which was a 9-hour course in child development and abusive families.  We asked for 100% board participation and explained that the more they knew about every aspect of the organization the easier it would be to get the message across to new potential stake holders.  We also mentioned that they would get a nice little certificate and there would be a formal ceremony with a judge and they’d get to eat good food and drink expensive wine afterwards.  I’d like to think it was the thought that they were doing something good for the kids and their families that got them all to take the training but I’m okay with the fact that it could have been the recognition.  Either way, we had 100% board participation.

After that experience it occurred to me that focusing on the problems of your organization is never going to help.  Addressing what they are, and in this case it was an ED afraid to ask her board to change and a board that actually had no idea what they were supposed to be doing, and moving forward is your only option.  For two months I accused the board of directors of being lazy and despondent.  When I realized that they just needed leadership, we were able to take action.

Did our plan work?  Yes, in many ways.  One thing that happened was that many of the board members now knew what our volunteers were putting in to our program and they gained an entirely different perspective of what was going on behind the scenes.  They also gained a deeper understanding of whom we were serving and it reinvigorated their passion for serving underprivileged populations.  I would be lying if I said that 100% of them turned in to everyone’s dream board member and I do have to admit that we lost a few of them along the way.  But that was a good thing.  You have to commit to lead your board to follow your mission and that means having a very clear vision of who you want them to be.  If they can’t commit to you, their duties and the mission of your organization, then trust me, you don’t want them on your board anyway.

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