Nonprofit Boards are People Too

A nonprofit board’s culture can either propel an organization to new heights, or send it hurtling to a fiery crash. Most won’t experience either extreme, but it’s important to know what helps shape the dynamic. Even a group that excels in every other aspect of its job description can be undone by a sour climate. Despite culture’s significant impact, few boards discuss it.

In this increasingly politicized world, we ask our boards to be diverse enough to maintain varied viewpoints but heterogeneous enough to come together under a common set of goals. The ways in which they approach those goals can create drastically different outcomes for their organizations.

Case in point: a board with an under-performing ED and a history of leadership turnover might be quicker to move toward firing that ED than one with a tradition of encouraging professional development. The “firing” board might come to its decision based on a culture of impatience, unrealistically high standards, or—if the firing is warranted—a willingness to act decisively. The “skills-building” board might operate in a culture of professional growth, or a belief that dismissing staff is bad for the organization or not worth the drama. Either of these board cultures has both beneficial and potentially harmful components. What matters most is that members can objectively see their tendencies and understand their implications.
It can take months to notice a perceptible difference in culture, and it can be uncomfortable at times—especially when it includes encouraging longtime members to consider vacating their seats. But, a change in climate can be one of the more tangible outcomes a board can undertake, and it’s usually worth the effort.

Who Can Change a Board’s Culture?

The chair can clearly have the greatest impact, whether intentionally or not. Members often look to the chair to set the tone in terms of the respect, honesty, and the commitment that person brings to meetings and other activities. This leader can also bring appropriate levity to crises or move agendas toward greater productivity. Culture is often most fruitful when the chair collaborates with the executive director (ED) to set the tone.

Is it fair to expect the executive director to play a major role in establishing the board’s culture? Fair or not, an ED’s energy, vision and charisma builds bridges among board members, many of whom are strangers to each other. Of course, a lackluster or unethical ED can weigh a board down. This individual’s greatest influence often transpires when he or she recommends future members and officers, who set the tone for the group’s future—and, when chosen well, can make the ED’s job easier and more successful.

Some boards keep constant watch on their culture by activating a governance committee, charged with advancing the board’s functioning. This small group can receive feedback from members, suggest topics for the meeting agenda and orientation and receive individual member feedback. Once the board has envisioned its ideal culture, committee members can monitor progress and hold peers accountable.

Even one individual can move the culture, armed with a vision and persistence. We have seen rank-and-file members champion culture change through impassioned speeches and through seemingly mundane activities.

What To Do?

Nothing about culture change happens quickly. But conversation can be an effective, if temporary, solution. So few boards talk about this topic. When was the last time someone at your board meeting asked any of these questions: What can we do to make these meetings more productive? More engaging? More beneficial to you? What would you like to learn? How do you learn best? What’s currently happening with the board that you’d like to see changed? How can our board become more successful? While some of these questions get addressed through board assessments, those solutions tend to focus more on substance than on climate. That’s fine, but without a dynamic culture in place, the group might not get around to addressing the substantive goals. Board culture is not psychobabble but a real phenomenon that must be discussed and monitored on a regular basis.

By definition, board service is inextricably tied to a group of fellow members. Those members can collectively choose to slog through meetings and accomplish the bare minimum, running home as soon as they adjourn. Or, they can take the lead—no matter how new they are—and change the culture for the better.

This blog is adapted from Susan’s latest book, Nonprofit Board Service for the GENIUS, co-authored with Bob Wittig.

About Susan Schaefer | Partners Newsletter

Susan is a consultant, writer, and speaker, and founder of the nonprofit consulting firm, Resource Partners LLC in the greater Washington DC area, and author of many books and her newsletter, Partners, all written with a mission to help nonprofits excel. Sign up for the Partners Newsletter here and find Susan's fundraising consulting books here.