Boards Get an A for Effort in 3 Key Areas

All association boards have their ups and downs as staff and volunteers negotiate the delicate balance between strategic objectives and administrative matters. In that process, there are probably a few things that you wish board members would stop doing. On the other hand, they do some things that are essential to fulfilling your organization's mission.

I tend to agree with California Association of Nonprofits CEO Jan Masaoka's assertion that "boards and board members don't get credit for some important work they do without even realizing they are doing it." According to her, most boards do at least 10 things right. Here are three that resonated with me:

Providing checks and balances. 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. And having to report to the board -- such as through a quarterly written report -- acts to help an executive reflect on past activities and re-focus on priorities.

Serving as the 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. But when an exec 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. Executives seldom ask board members for help on urgent, crucial, big things. When we do, we usually get the help we need.

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. From one angle, board inaction can look like dithering and unnecessary caution. But it may also be seen as appropriate scrutiny and oversight of staff plans. Using that extra "open mind" time to think of alternative approaches, to raise money or to re-evaluate staff capacity is often important "second opinion" work that executives should value.

If your board members put forth an effort in these areas, they should get an "A" from you.