What Are Working Boards Working On?

Today’s column features Dani Robbins, Director of Nonprofit Administration programs at John Carroll University. Dani has served the nonprofit arena for over 25 years, primarily in executive leadership positions for social justice agencies.

We’re thrilled to feature Dani as she shares why she doesn’t teach her students about working boards and answers the question of what working boards (should be) working on. Thank you, Dani, for your commitment to building capacity for the sector and developing the next generation of social justice leaders!

— Mollard Consulting

“Why weren’t we taught about working boards?” This question was posed by a student in my Leadership and Management class who had recently completed my Board and Executive Leadership class.

She had been presenting an assignment in which students had interviewed nonprofit leaders. One of those leaders had reported having a “working board.” Why weren’t they taught about it?

It is a fair question. They weren’t taught about working boards.

Working boards mean different things to different people. In its best sense, it means that boards are engaged.

It’s a statement that sounds definitive but isn’t. It doesn’t tell you anything about their board. All boards work. The question is do they work on the right things?

What are the right things? I’m so glad you asked! (See how this professor thing works?!)

The right things are:

  • Hiring, supporting, and evaluating the executive leader. Also firing, as necessary.
  • Setting policy.
  • Securing resources for the organization.
  • Serving as the fiduciary responsible agent.
  • Setting the mission, vision, and strategic direction of the organization.

Everything else gets done by the executive or in concert with the executive. The work of the board gets done by committee, reported out, and approved at board meetings, which are documented because as David Martin says, “the board speaks through its minutes.”

Having a robust committee structure ensures the work outlined above is moved forward. Board committees should each have charts of work. In the best cases, committees are chaired by a board member and have non-board members as well.

This work should also be aligned with a strategic plan and in partnership with the executive leader. That’s the work.

There may or may not be a strategic planning committee that stewards the plan; hopefully, the whole board was involved in the plan’s development or at least weighed in and then bought into the final plan. In case it needs to be said, strategic plans should never be developed by the executive, though that executive leader should absolutely be in the room and be involved. Not only is strategy setting a board role, but as I tell my class, “Any plan you develop alone in your office, you will execute alone in your office.”

The reason I don’t teach students the term working board but do teach them the work of the board is this: it confuses the issue. Working on other things is work, but it’s not governing, which is the actual (legal) work of the board.

There are lot of things board members do that is not the work of the board, but because it is done by a board member, it may look like it is. Things like volunteering in the program, developing marketing for the organization (developing a plan for marketing is the work of the board but it gets squishy past there), and asking for non-board related information from staff.

Board members have a lot of power. They can ask for and get a lot of things. They can do a lot of jobs. They can work and work hard, but they can’t always call that work governing.

My hope is that the term working boards means that they serve the board and the organization. Contrast that with sitting on a board. Sitting implies you’re sitting on high, and that’s not what boards do — certainly not boards that work (which are all boards).

It’s what boards work on that separates the struggling boards from the effective ones.

Article by: Dani Robbins, Director, Nonprofit Administration Programs, John Carroll University

2022-08-25T18:48:01+00:00August 25th, 2022|