October 30, 2019

Your board is only as good as you want it to be

In most cases, a board’s contribution to an organisation is determined by the CEO’s ask of it. Here's how you can engage them beyond just compliance.

4 min read

“They do not turn up for meetings.”

“They don’t get back on emails or reports.” 

“The agenda says one thing, but we end up discussing something else altogether.”

When it comes to talking about board members, none of the above complaints are uncommon or surprising to hear from CEOs and founders. And while many of these statements are true, what nonprofit leaders overlook is that, often, the problems are created by them.

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CEOs and founders are busy–leading organisations in a crowded sector, with the pressure to stay relevant, scale, and be visible. This is coupled with difficulties of infrastructure and resources. Amidst all of this, there are a few reasons why nonprofit leaders wake up to the ‘board issue’:

They want support, but from afar

When they have run the organisation for a while–to the best of their abilities, and as independently as they might have wanted to–they now find themselves tiring and needing support. The problem is that they want this support to be provided with as few questions asked as possible.

Their donors like board engagement

There is a growing interest in first-time donors about board engagement–beyond just compliance–in the organisations they support. Suddenly a CEO who might have made their peace with a sub-optimal board finds themselves answerable to donors about why their board is not as strong as it needs to be. (It is another matter that donors themselves may not have very strong boards but expect it from their grantees)

Their relationship with their board is strained

Sometimes, when CEOs inherit their boards from a founder and try to engage with its members, they fail, for a variety of reasons. So they typically ‘put up’ with such a board and find help elsewhere. In this scenario it seems like just too much effort to create a board that they can engage effectively.

Image of a notebook with a to-do list

Having a board plan that aligns with the organisation’s strategic plan is a great way to engage your board. | Photo courtesy – Suzy Hazelwood, Pexels

Related article: How to become an engaged board member

What can CEOs and board members do in such a scenario?

1. Identify the real cause for frustration

In the leadership-board relationship, does the frustration stem from within or is it due to external pressure (a crisis, donor influence, and so on)?

If the cause is from within, then the will to address the issue is far more easily established. In such a situation, a CEO will likely take the necessary steps to influence their board to work better or differently. This is of course dependent on their ability to have an open conversation about expectations, reckon with having to be accountable to the board that might become more proactive as a result, and also deal with members who may leave the board in the event of greater demands from them.

It’s best to start having conversations about the need for greater engagement, followed by very specific asks of board members, offering them the support of the executive team to deliver on that ask. Sometimes, finding an ally within the board to broach the topic is also a good way to articulate the changing expectations from the board.

If on the other hand, the pressure for change is external, it’s less likely that the changes being sought will truly achieve the end goal. In this situation, the CEO will often find themselves slipping back into the original dynamic of sub-optimal engagement. This is far worse than doing nothing with the board because it creates false expectations which, could leave the board frustrated and negative towards the CEO.

In such a circumstance, it’s best to try and have an open conversation with your donor. Tell them that your board fulfils the compliance role and that is all that is expected of them, given that other forms of diligence are taken care of through systemic processes. Sharing this with the board as well and re-validating their role leaves little room for an unhealthy dynamic.

2. Create a board plan

Sometimes CEOs hesitate to ask for help or resist deeper engagement because they end up having boards that only ask questions without providing the back-up support needed to find solutions.

Having a board plan that aligns with the organisation’s strategic plan is a great way to establish expectations.

Having a board plan that aligns with the organisation’s strategic plan is a great way to establish expectations and the accountability paradigm for board member behaviour.

Related article: How to run a more effective board meeting

Identifying tasks that determine the delivery of the expected role, discussing the same, and reviewing whether that role was fulfilled, will strengthen the board role.

3. Get rid of non-contributing members

This, perhaps, is the hardest to do. As a culture we are extremely shy about throwing out people who are in positions of authority, and are quite willing to tolerate non-performance. Factors such as gender, age, legacy, and sometimes even caste and community get in the way of openly asking people to exit. Boards therefore end up having people for decades who get used to a certain way of behaving and believe that nothing more is expected of them.

In an ideal world, a board would take the responsibility of reviewing its performance and engagement with the organisation and delegating to the CEO when it comes to execution of the mission. This of course works better when the board takes complete ownership of the mission, in letter, spirit, and deed. However, since the majority of organisations continue to be run by founders directly or indirectly, and in rare situations with complete transfer to a hired CEO, a board’s contribution continues to be determined by the CEO’s ask of it.

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Aarti Madhusudan-Image
Aarti Madhusudan

Aarti Madhusudan is the founder of Governance Counts, an initiative which helps nonprofits build more effective boards. This includes identifying key board related issues and recommending good practice guidelines. She has consulted several Indian and international organisations. Aarti is passionate about volunteering, and runs Whiteboard, an iVolunteer initiative that brings senior corporate professionals together as a group to provide strategic guidance pro bono to nonprofits. She volunteers herself with DaanUtsav. Aarti is an alumna of TISS, Mumbai and NIMHANS, Bangalore.