In my experience there are three major pitfalls that can affect the ability of a nonprofit board of directors to fulfill its duty and serve its organization.
Pitfall 1 – lack of immediate feedback
In many cases, nonprofit boards are dealing with matters whose results will occur sometime in the future—next month, next year, or years down the line. Sometimes the people who make a decision will not even be serving on the board when its consequences unfold.
If raising our member fees by 10% means that 30% of our members fail to renew, we are in trouble, but it will take a while to discover it. Having no specific outcome in view can make folks a little heedless. As Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Pitfall 2 – putting things off
Often boards are grappling with issues that are important but not urgent. It is all too easy to think, “Well, we don’t have to make a decision yet,” and postpone the matter to another meeting. It takes energy and character to face tough issues. This is where a good chair or president can help focus the board and its deliberations. A board has a fundamental duty to set the direction of the organization. Drift is not a direction.
Pitfall 3 – diffuse responsibility
By its nature, a board is a collective body. Each individual member is responsible for their own action. Sometimes it feels as if, as a result, nobody is responsible for the board’s action. Members have to take a balanced perspective, knowing that their work is collective, yet at the same time, each member has the duty of studying the matter carefully and bringing their best thinking to the task. Remember to—gently—hold each other accountable.
Volunteer leaders who keep these pitfalls in mind can help their board avoid them. We must be vigilant and energetic if we are to exercise properly the authority which, by law and custom, lies in the hands of directors of nonprofit organizations.
Does this resonate with you? Tell me about it!