Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cleaning Up Toxic Boards

This is a subject worthy of a doctoral dissertation, probably in the field of social anthropology. Why do people do the things they do? I was just talking about this very thing with a long-time nonprofit executive yesterday. These conversations usually result in a lot of head shaking. I love the last paragraph about making "courage" a criteria for Board membership. Toxic boards aren't just harmful to the organization, they are harmful to the mission and program. Read this one and definitely pass it on (or around at the next Board meeting!) Bunnie

Cleaning Up Toxic Boards

by Margie Morris, President, Morris Ink

Every agency or organization with any level of credibility has expectations of its board of directors and clearly stated policies to explain them. Confidentiality, attendance, voting methodology, conflict of interest, ethics, open meetings stipulations, diversity – a broad spectrum of guidelines to ensure a transparent infrastructure and decision-making. But even the most fervent rules and regs can’t ensure that board members act like grown-ups. And when they don’t, it creates trouble for other directors, the agency represented, and ultimately those served by the agency. Sometimes even the community.

The most toxic situations often occur when more conversations about the agency or its staff take place outside of meetings than when sitting at the board table. Watch for red flags: Small clusters left in the parking lot long after the group has adjourned, furtive e-mails or phone calls circulating surreptitiously, offsite gatherings when board business is discussed with any willing participant. If not addressed in an appropriate manner, talking about people (or things) instead of talking to people (about things) becomes almost a kind of entertainment. It creates its own energy and keeps boards from doing the sometimes hard work of resolving challenges.

It’s a problem that can permeate the culture of an organization, and often begins because well-intentioned executive staff short circuit communications for purposes of efficiency. (And those not so well-intentioned may advocate brevity so there is little time for questions, review or discussion.) It can be exacerbated by board members who, for whatever reason, agree to play the game rather than taking a stand to redirect unproductive activity. Changing course can be as simple and non-threatening as taking ownership of a request for additional information or requesting that a discussion take place so that all can hear.

To prevent the problem from occurring, re-evaluate the board’s MOO from time to time. Conduct a self-assessment. Talk openly with the staff executive about what’s working and what’s not. Structure board meetings so that directors are not just given the opportunity, but invited to participate. Hopefully, every member of the board was selected through a strategic process that helps ensure optimal functioning of the agency. So utilize the strengths for which each director was “hired” in the first place. And for heaven’s sakes, have term limits and share leadership through short-term task forces and other avenues of involvement.

To achieve greater participation, be sure the climate allows for thoughtful disagreement. Construct committees so that their work is meaningful and recommendations include board input. No rubber stamping. Give information in an efficient and user-friendly format, but give it. Asking volunteers to peruse 10 pages of financials five minutes before a vote is not good business. Of course, neither is subjecting board members to monthly information packets that weigh 15 pounds, even if they get it a month in advance.

Consider the multiple of three. One staff person always begins his brief presentation of information at board meetings by stating, “There are three things you’ll want to consider carefully about this issue.” And then he names them. Another executive staff member periodically asks her board members to prioritize which three items in the board packet are most useful. Three is a magically manageable number.

Finally, include courage on your list of prerequisites for potential new board members. The courage to disagree. The courage to change direction. The courage to know and follow the rules of the agency and also those that come with being a mature and responsible leader. Amazingly it usually only takes one person to turn a potential problem around. Noticing is the first step.

You can contact Marjie at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the superb article-governing boards need a good shake up, in my opinion. Too little has gone on for too long. Thanks Marjie.