We’ve spent a ton of time in foundation board rooms, for better and for worse. We’ve also been board members and guest speakers at operating nonprofits and one of us staffed two college boards decades ago. Many of those experiences have been engaging and positive. When boards work well, they help organizations focus, strengthen their work, reinforce values of equity, and provide advice, energy, resources, and inspiration.

When boards don’t work well, however, they can kill momentum toward important social progress. We’ve seen too many that are disinterested or dysfunctional, creating distorted power dynamics, wasting precious resources, and landing on approaches that do not fully reflect the needs and solutions that communities see for themselves.

That experience has led us to believe there are at least eight warning signs that a board, whether of an operating nonprofit or a foundation, is off track.

  1. There are more frequent discussions of competitors and costs than of collaborators.
  2. The board lacks racial diversity and is populated mostly or entirely by people without knowledge of philanthropy, nonprofits, or the work of the organization.
  3. The board is two-tiered.
  4. Authority for decisions is unclear or unspoken.
  5. There is more time spent by the board listening to CEO or staff presentations than actually discussing topics.
  6. There’s no celebration — no joy.
  7. The CEO isn’t assessed, the assessment is opaque, or only seen by a subset of board members.
  8. The Board doesn’t assess itself.

Read the full article about board dysfunction by Kevin Bolduc and Phil Buchanan at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.