Expert Board Members could be Killing your Nonprofit
So, you or someone you know are starting a nonprofit or looking to bring new members to your existing board of directors.
Seeking subject matter experts seems to be the right way to go. After all, shouldn’t any nonprofit want the top academics, advocates, and expats from the areas you serve to guide the organization?
But here’s a surprise. Often, the answer is no.
Certainly, many expert board members take their governance responsibilities seriously. But others, with the best of intentions, carry their own agendas and pet projects into the nonprofit. This can result in significant conflicts of interest, decision-making paralysis, wasted resources, and bickering and back-biting. These problems undermine the integrity of the board and the impact the nonprofit seeks to make.
The purpose of a board of directors is to govern the nonprofit.
Governance responsibilities fall into three categories: Strategy, Oversight, and Policy. Strategy determines how the nonprofit aims to pursue its mission and vision with the greatest possible impact. Oversight deals with stewardship of donor dollars, transparency in spending, and adherence to acceptable accounting practices. Policy addresses matters such as by-laws, hiring and evaluating the executive director, and selecting and maintaining a competent board that governs according to sound rules.
Unfortunately, being a subject matter expert, academic, advocate, or expat does not necessarily help board members fulfill their primary responsibilities. Superb thought leaders or people with important lived experiences who have little to no training or experience with governance can damage your organization, usually inadvertently, by drowning meetings in esoteric debate and scrimmaging to fund pet projects.
These problems create internal revenue bleeding. Decision-making paralysis forces the organization to tread water. Shifting priorities lurch the efforts of your team from one initiative to another. This burns the time and energy of your team. You cannot create and sustain momentum or generate the kind of productivity that comes from consistency. Your employees get frustrated, which lowers their levels of engagement. You spend endless hours dealing with drama, interpersonal disputes, and sometimes even subterfuge, rather than growing the organization. Many nonprofits detect the damage too late and never recover.
To add to the problem, experts may be less likely to donate to your nonprofit. Many rationalize that their academic work and volunteer support for the board is sufficient skin-in-the-game. This is an understandable sentiment, but it could hurt your organization. Nonprofit watchdogs and grant-makers want to know if each member of your board is a donor. When board members do not donate, watchdogs and grant-makers perceive that significant internal problems must exist.
What to do
- Hire board members with governance experience who agree to donate to the organization. The amount of the donation does not matter.
Create a board of advisers for subject matter experts. They can give you the benefits of their research and experience and not be put in a position to damage your organization.
- Develop conflict of interest policies that prevent board members from participating in discussions in which they have a vested personal, financial or professional interest.
- Conduct governance training as a part of your board development process.
French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously remarked that war is too important to be left to the generals. Like generals, subject matter experts can be helpful to your nonprofit with their research, experiences, and professional backgrounds. Exercise great caution before letting them run the show.