I have served on several nonprofit boards of directors and written two books about those and other leadership experiences. I've learned that building and sustaining high-functioning governing bodies is arduous, time-consuming work, but it's worth the effort. Run well, they can bolster an organization's revenues, provide access to influential figures, inspire confidence in stakeholders, help manage risks, improve leaders' performance, and contribute to the crafting of a compelling mission and strategy.

Sadly, many nonprofit boards miss out on these benefits and are more or less dysfunctional, based on a 2014 report by the Urban Institute and my three decades of work in the field. It's a topic that management literature has little to say about. People usually don’t like to draw attention to the fact that they were part of such a group. One of the rare case studies, “Should It Survive? Charles Dunlap and the National Legal Foundation,” focuses on an organization that no longer exists, which may have freed those involved to talk openly.

To help fill the gap, I wrote in detail about an example of a weak board that I unsuccessfully tried to reform and from which I was ultimately forced to resign. That recounting complements this article in order to take on the challenging issue of board dysfunction. I've found that drawing on my personal experience is tricky—it can hurt important relationships if done carelessly—but necessary, given the dearth of information.

In my 30 years of experience, I have observed three main types of unsuccessful nonprofit governing bodies:

  1. Rubber Stamp Board. This type of board approves whatever management proposes and often plays the role of cheerleader.
  2. Micromanaging Board. This board takes on key management functions in addition to its proper governing role.
  3. Balkanized Board. These boards consist of people who are concerned about only one part of the organization—often the program they support financially.

Read the full article about dysfunctional nonprofit boards by Alex Counts at Stanford Social Innovation Review.