Why People Hate Nonprofit Board Service

Tonight, the stakeholders (parents) of my daughter's school will be voting to approve the list of new board members to replace those who are rolling off at the end of the school year. I am on the new member list, so I thought I would take this occasion to address board service and why it is so dreaded.

If you have been around the nonprofit world very long, you undoubtedly have heard the horror stories. You may have a few of your own. The examples include everything from complete and utter apathy to dictatorial death grip … and lots in-between. Over the course of the past 15 years, I have been on 6 boards of directors and have advised countless others. Tonight's vote should make the tally 7. Some of these boards have been healthy, productive boards and some have been dysfunctional beyond belief. One of the boards I serve on started with a nightmare board, but has evolved into one the best I've ever seen (so there is hope for you!).

Here are some typical situations:

  • The board is unengaged. Apathy reigns supreme. Nobody cares. The board members give lip service to the cause, but dump everything on the shoulders of the hired Executive Director. Few new board members who come into this type of situation are comfortable rocking the boat even if they realize it's unhealthy. Most will quietly serve out their term and move on. And that's assuming the Executive Director does not quit and the organization fold as a result.
  • The board has a dominant leader. By dominant, I do not mean simply persuasive and hyper-engaged. I'm talking about a dictator who runs roughshod over everyone else. Talk about miserable! Well-meaning board members caught in this situation dread meetings and fear even opening their mouth for fear of getting shot down and publicly humiliated. This is a nightmare scenario and all too common.
  • A board that does not understand its role. This one is stealthy … and very, very common. A BOARD'S ROLE IS TO GOVERN, NOT TO MANAGE. Read that sentence again. If you get nothing else from this article, get that. The board's role is to establish the mission, define the programs and set strategy, then to install those staff members and / or volunteers who can carry it all out (manage). Boards that do not understand the difference between management and governance will constantly undermine those charged with responsibility for conducting the programs. This unhealthy micromanagement leads to frustration and, inevitably, ineffective programs. Often, members of a micromanaging board may not even realize the dysfunction if they have never been a part of a board that understands this concept. They will be aware, however, that anything that manages to get accomplished seems to take Herculean effort.
  • No training for new board members. For some reason, most nonprofit boards assume new members just automatically know what to do. Some might, but most do not. Investing in training of new board members can pave the way for a fulfilling experience that may result in more people being willing to contribute their time and talent to other organizations.

No matter the particular dysfunction, the resulting damage can be widespread. Obviously, the charity suffers greatly. So, too, do the board members involved. As a result, many a valuable person is forever burned by the experience and he or she swears off board service forever. It should not be that way. Serving on the board of a great organization should be a privilege, not a chore. Yes, it is work. And, yes, it takes precious time that we all have too little of.

I am happy to report that the board I am about to join is exceptionally healthy and functional. If only more were like that.