You can find plenty of stories about boards getting things wrong, but too often boards and board members don’t get credit for some important work they do without even realizing they are doing it.
No matter what goes wrong in a nonprofit, somehow the board gets blamed. If the executive director embezzled money, people say, “Where was the board?” Why don’t they say: “Executives are always at the root of the problem. Why don’t we just stop having them?”
In fact, boards and board members don’t get credit for some important work they do without even realizing they are doing it. Think about it:
1. Safety net
The confident trapeze artist doesn’t really see the point of the expensive safety net. Few people appreciate safety nets — or boards — when things are going fine. But when a nonprofit’s staff leadership falls off the tightrope, nonprofit boards step up, govern, fix things, and hire a new executive.
2. Speed limits patrolled by aircraft.
When people drive down an empty country highway and see this sign, they slow down, even if there don’t seem to be any planes overhead. Even executives who speak contemptuously about their boards end up being more careful because the board is there. When a board member reviews the CEO’s expense report, the CEO is more likely to keep those expenses reasonable, even if that board member signs the report without really looking at it.
3. Putting their own bank accounts at risk for staff wrongdoing.
By being on the board, board members expose themselves to liabilities that D&O insurance doesn’t cover. (D&O by law can’t insure board members against tax failings or criminal acts. If it could, we would all get D&O insurance, and then fail to remit payroll taxes.) When staff don’t submit the payroll taxes withheld from employee paychecks or the employer-paid payroll taxes, board members can be individually liable.
4. Baton relay
Boards take the organization back when the executive leaves, find a new executive, and then turn the organization over to that new leader. This is one way to understand executive director departure, and the board’s role in this transition.
5. SWAT team in waiting.
It’s rare for executive directors to cry “help!” in despair to their boards. We executives like to tell the board about a problem just seconds before telling the board about the solution we have devised. (And then, of course, the exec wonders why the board always expects them to be able to pull yet another rabbit out of the hat).
But when an executive is really at a loss over a problem and asks in despair for help, board members leap in. A lawsuit? Board members identify lawyers to help pro bono. Someone has to drive the musicians to the concert at the prison tonight and there’s no one else to do it? A board member will cancel plans and volunteer.
6. Satisfying a funder’s demographic requirement
A man with HIV on the board of a health clinic commented, “I’m not sure I’m helping much on this board. But one thing I’m doing is helping this nonprofit meet the requirement of having HIV positive board members. They need people to do that, and I am happy I can do it.”
7. Putting their personal brands on the line.
Board members give their names and reputations to help the organization and its cause. Not only prominent people care about their reputations.
8. Keeping the organization’s mind open a little longer than might seem necessary.
Strong executives often see their boards as being overly cautious, standing in the way of an ambitious, important, urgent vision. Yet too often such urgent visions are undertaken without the money and constituency support that are necessary to making them feasible. (This writer has a history of being guilty on this count.)
9. Hand on the eject switch.
The board’s most important mechanism for action is its ability to fire or not fire the executive. Sometimes when a board doesn’t fire a flawed or mistaken executive it’s because of denial or conflict avoidance. But other times it’s an intentional decision to allow the executive to grow into the job.
10. Nonprofit boards are vehicles of democratic values.
The idea that indirect taxes (via tax exemptions) should be overseen by volunteer boards is an idea with democracy at its core. Like the idea of civilian control of the military, in a democracy we believe that citizens should have the ability to exercise oversight in line with their values, even if the generals or executives don’t agree.
Read the full article about what board members are doing right at BoardSource.