Power + Nonprofit Boards – Part One

“Over the door to the nonprofit’s boardroom there should be an inscription in big letters that says: ‘Membership on this board is not power, it is responsibility.’” – Peter F. Drucker[1]

There is nothing new about nonprofit board members acting as power brokers or donors using their affluence for influence. There is also nothing new about power parity dynamics between chief executives and boards — the executive-dominated organization vs. the board-dominated organization.

What feels new, and what we are increasingly seeing in boardrooms and day-to-day work, is a culture that is aggressive instead of amicable and behavior more akin to bullying than benevolence.

Let’s start by discussing the larger context that we are all living and working within. Divisiveness is intensified — from our nation’s capital to local school boards. There are wars around the globe that impact us at home, persistent inflationary and economic pressures, pundits on networks, bots on social media, and a presidential election campaign that promises to be ugly at best.

We cannot escape, nor are we immune from, the rancor. It permeates all facets of American society, including the realm of public charities. This is disheartening and the problems can be exacerbated by a lack of accountability from and/or among board members and organizational leaders.

Rather than addressing abuses of power, board members can suffer from an unwillingness to call out bad behavior.

  • How often have you seen board members look the other way, roll their eyes, or say “that’s just how he is” in response to an ill-mannered board member?
  • Have you seen board chairs that avoid conflict altogether or feel beholden to a power broker?
  • Does your executive committee hide major issues from the larger board, choosing instead to operate as a board-within-a-board?
  • Have you witnessed silent majorities go along with a vocal few, even when they deride and demand?

If it isn’t the board’s responsibility to address bad behavior on the board, then whose is it?

Power Dynamics

A fundamental aspect of power is imposing your will on others. Public charities can feel bound to a donor’s will because of a constant need for money, which is driven by ever-increasing demand coupled with resource scarcity, often exacerbated by the overhead myth.

The constant demand-to-resource ratio leads to pervasive fatigue, and so, leaders often relent.

Chief executives often have too much on their plates and are far too tired to disagree or take a stand — after all, their job is on the line when it comes to the board’s power. This is especially true when the board member at the center of issues holds a title or has a last name that adds to their power (real or perceived).

If doing a donor’s pet project or letting a board member drive some new initiative means the chief executive fights one less battle and gets to focus on the larger issue of advancing the mission, then so be it.

But at what cost?

Letting power brokers drive their own agendas puts organizations at risk of mission creep and leadership loss. There may be higher rates of donor attrition or board member turnover from those who do not align with the new direction.

Still, the greatest risk may be an unplanned chief executive departure. While the reasons chief executives leave are multifaceted, too many leaders get burnt out and move on from roles and missions they truly love.

Chief Executive Departures

The great resignation continues with chief executive departures at record levels, according to reports from October 2023. “The government and nonprofit sector topped the list for CEO turnover, with more than 350 leaving their posts this year, up more than 85 percent over the same period last year.”

The following infographic illustrates this stark statistic.

Source: Challenger, Gray, & Christmas report, 10/19

Further, the average voluntary turnover rate for nonprofit organizations is about 19%, whereas the average all-industry rate is just 12%.[2]

Why are so many dedicated and talented leaders leaving? We believe power dynamics play a role.

The relationship between power dynamics and chief executive departures is complex. When we factor in the intersectionality of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and other aspects of our identities and lived experiences, it becomes even more complicated.

The report published by Building Movement Project, Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs: A Race to Lead Report on Nonprofit Executives of Color, paints a bleak picture:

“Altogether, approximately half of EDs/CEOs of color (52%) and white EDs/CEOs (46%) reported that they were either thinking about transitioning or planning to move on from their ED/CEO role… leaders of color and EDs/CEOs of identity-based organizations faced deep and chronic gaps between the needs of their communities and the financial resources flowing to their nonprofits. Taken together, the findings may help explain the large percentage of leaders who are contemplating their transitions. Executive leadership in the nonprofit sector is notoriously difficult, but too often, this work is made much harder for people of color.”

So, how do we address this? One way is through building constructive partnerships between chief executives and the board.

Constructive Partnership

Even though it was published by BoardSource nearly 20 years ago, The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards remains a go-to reference for our work.

The first principle is constructive partnership: “Exceptional boards govern in constructive partnership with the chief executive, recognizing that the effectiveness of the board and chief executive are interdependent.” An essential element for constructive partnership to flourish is “trust, candor, and respect.” When there is a lack of these three values, we also tend to find a lack of power parity.

Board members should no longer accept aggressive and divisive behavior as the norm and should work collaboratively to restore balance, which will benefit both the organization and society at large. The reflection questions below provide opportunities for dialogue and action.

Nonprofit board members must remember that the single most important relationship in their organization is the relationship between the board and its chief executive. The second most important relationship is among board members themselves.

Tending to those relationships, and fostering a climate of collegiality, should be of the utmost importance.

For the health of the sector, which directly impacts the health of the people and places served by nonprofit missions, we must identify the various power dynamics that negatively impact leaders and organizations, before we can remedy them.

Reflection Questions

Is your chief executive ready to leave, or has already left? While there may be a host of reasons for the departure, the board may not be fully aware of their role in the leader’s decision. The following questions are designed for reflection by individual board members so that they may create a space for deep dialogue and action:

  • Are you holding toxic board members accountable?
    • The governance committee is the “conscience of the board” and your partner for accountability, along with your board officers.
  • Are you protecting your staff from toxic donors?
  • Are you saying “no” or “stop” or “that’s unacceptable” when someone acts or speaks in a way that should be considered intolerable but currently seems commonplace?
    • Your willingness to do so will speak volumes to your organization’s leaders and your peers on the board.
  • Are you participating in secretive meetings, side conversations, or even investigations, that are being driven by one or two loud voices?
    • The authority given to a board is given to the collective, the full board, not to individual board members.
  • Are you actively engaging in the life and health of the organization, or are you putting in minimal effort because of a power imbalance?
    • Determining what engagement means to you, your board, and the chief executive is a powerful and strategic conversation that often gets overlooked.
  • Are you ensuring that the organization has the resources it needs by giving generously and supporting fundraising efforts?
    • BoardSource recommends creating a board giving policy where the expectation is 100% participation, at whatever amount is personally meaningful to each board member.

Next week’s column will further this conversation with the power dynamic of sexual harassment and its prevalence in fundraising.

Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder and CEO

[1] Peter Drucker, Managing the Non-profit Organization, published in 1990.

[2] https://www.exacthire.com/workforce-management/nonprofit-employee-retention/

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