Modeling the Nonprofit Board Behavior We Seek

gears-blogBy Susan Howlett, consultant and author

This post is one in a series written by experts who will be presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

Do you ever complain about your board members? Maybe they’re not giving as generously as you think they could. Or they’re not talking up your organization or asking their contacts to contribute time, in-kind gifts, money, or sponsorship.

What if they’re not the problem? Perhaps we haven’t been offering them good models to follow. Here are three things we can examine about our own behavior that might change theirs:

Are we treating our board members like major donors?

If our board members aren’t giving according to their capacity, it might be because we haven’t made the effort to cultivate a relationship that acknowledges them individually and deepens their connection to our cause. We can thank them more powerfully, with hand-written notes, personal phone calls, and verbal acknowledgements in person or at events. We can use their time more strategically at board meetings, and connect the dots between their service and the impact it’s having on end-users. Taking the time throughout the year to honor the myriad gifts they offer may lead to larger investments because they feel seen and heard and valued as part of the team. And they’ll see first-hand how to cultivate a relationship with a potential donor.

Are we engaging our board members in our work?

If our board members aren’t being compelling ambassadors, helping people in their circles embrace our cause, it might be because we haven’t helped THEM connect to our work. We can

  • ask board members to write their own testimonials about why they care about the organization. They might struggle to articulate it, but it will be an insightful assignment, and they could see why asking others the same question could be a great engagement tactic.
  • have them gather stories of the organization’s impact on end-users, to be shared at board meetings, in publications, in appeal letters or thank-yous. As they collect and share stories from people who have benefited, they’ll gain a deeper understanding of how we make a difference.
  • invite them to participate in an in-the-trenches experience or behind-the-scenes tour with insider information from someone in your field or an elected official who champions your work.
  • host a salon in someone’s living room where board members and other smart people wrestle with a troubling aspect of your issue
  • offer them opportunities to share advice or expertise, or open a door to an in-kind gift of goods or services

Once board members see how rewarding it is to get closer to the mission, they’ll be more willing to invite others to get involved too.

Are we asking for their support in the most compelling way?

If our board members aren’t asking others for support, it might be because they don’t know what a good request looks or feels like. We often ask them all at once to make their annual pledges at a board meeting, depriving them of the joy and satisfaction of a well-planned personal conversation that centers on their alignment with the mission. Make sure each board member has been the subject of a skillful solicitation so he or she will be eager to offer others that same memorable opportunity.

When board members have been engaged in the mission, cultivated and stewarded artfully, and asked powerfully for their own personal gift, they’ll understand what it feels like to be a donor to our organization. As with all of us, they’ll repeat the behavior they’ve experienced. So see to it that what happens to them is intentional, strategic, personal, and respectful. Model the behavior you want them to exhibit and they’ll emulate it with others.





Building a Collaborative Nonprofit Board Team

sept-blog4By David Styers, BoardSource Senior Governance Consultant; manager of program & business development, Presidio Institute, a Presidio Trust Initiative

This post is one in a series written by board leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place in New Orleans on November 9 & 10. We invite you to join us.

How well would your board stack up against a great basketball team, say my hometown’s NBA-champion Golden State Warriors? And I don’t mean in the racking up of points but in terms of how your members work as a team.

For years, you have heard, “You need to diversify your board,” but once accomplished, what does it take to get a group of individuals with a diversity of perspectives, skills, and experiences to work together to advance your mission when they come from… different planets?! Those corporate folks over there are from Mercury. The ones with ties to the government? They’re from Saturn. And the individuals who work within the nonprofit sector hail from Neptune!

I don’t think I’m alone in noticing a disconnect among diverse board members in how to even talk to and understand each another’s “sector dialect.” For example, the perspective of a nonprofit board member in zero-based budgeting may be completely foreign to one from the private sector, and the corporate board member may embrace innovation and risk a little faster than his or her government partner. The result can be more coblaborating than collaborating, which is what your board needs to do.

Based on what Albert Einstein recognized — “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them” — your diverse board will have to learn to behave differently. Not surprising, it seems to come down to that old adage: teamwork. Collaborative boards, just like the Golden State Warriors, are board teams. They take the time to develop trust, manage power dynamics and conflicts, and foster a culture of innovation.

If there is no trust, board members will not be able to successfully address organizational problems or take advantage of opportunities when they occur. Trust is based on understanding, empathy, and shared commitment. Do your board members understand each another’s experiences, work, training, and pressures? Does your board provide your members with the opportunity to develop that understanding? How do your board members build and maintain empathy for each another and commitment to the work? How do they build the resilience to be able to speak frankly without fear or judgment?

You also need to manage your board’s power dynamics and conflict. How do you acknowledge them and understand the history of the board and organization? How well do you bring a lens of racial/ethnic/gender/class equity and inclusion to the work of the board? How do you approach and enable conflict to occur productively?

Finally, to function well as a collaborative team, a board needs to foster a culture of innovation. How do you build a culture of learning and continuous improvement in your board? How do you make yourselves open to new information, ideas, and ways of developing solutions?

By focusing on leading together, your board will provide better governance and ultimately better advancement of your mission. Maybe there should be a BLF championship for best board team! Again, how well would your board fare?

Passing the Nonprofit Governance Torch to GENNEXT

sept-blog3By Kay Irby, director of organizational development, Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. Please consider joining us for this event.

“Help! Our board is lacking in diversity regarding race, skillset, and most of all, age!”

Ten years ago, the Community Foundation of North Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations (LANO) was showered with pleas of this kind from nonprofit leaders from throughout the northwest part of our state. Our response? To help change the situation through a Community Leaders program that has, over the past decade, trained hundreds of young professionals in nonprofit board service and placed these young leaders on boards throughout northwest Louisiana.

We began our efforts by asking our nonprofits why they don’t have younger leaders at the board table. The answers ranged from We know we need them, but they don’t have wealth and access to wealth” and “They are at an age and stage in life where they don’t have time” to “We don’t know any who would be interested.”

We then asked young leaders why they don’t serve on local nonprofit boards. Their answers ranged from “I don’t have the confidence to speak out at meetings” and “I don’t feel educated about board roles and responsibilities” to “I want to serve where I can make a difference, not just enable an organization to check off a diversity box.”

It was clear that we had work to do on both sides of the issue, and that’s what the Community Leaders program does. Through collaborative partnerships committed to change and an innovative model for teaching board roles and responsibilities, we have made headway in changing the composition of our aging boards. Northwest Louisiana’s nonprofits now understand not only why they need to pass the reins of leadership onto the next generation, but, more importantly, are confident that our community’s young leaders are prepared to serve.

Program graduates currently serve on 45 boards in our area, and several have been selected to chair the board. Impressively, 70% of participants continue to make financial contributions to nonprofit organizations three years after completing their training, and 81% continue to serve on a nonprofit board during the same period.

Who holds the governance reins in your community? Paula Hickman, executive director of The Community Foundation of North Louisiana, and I will share our insights in equipping a new generation of leaders for the future of nonprofit board service at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum.  We hope to see you there.

Equip Your New Nonprofit Board Members to Be Effective on Day One

sept-blog2By Cyrus N. (Russ) White, principal, The South Cabin Group LLC; board member, Grand Rapids (MN) Area Community Foundation

This post is one in a series written by individuals who are presenting at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on November 9 & 10, in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

According to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (BoardSource, 2015), average board size has dropped by more than 20 percent — from 19 directors to 15 — since 1994. As nonprofit boards become smaller, the impact of each board member grows. It’s not always easy to find new members, and it takes time and money to onboard new people. This makes it crucial to get new members up to speed as quickly as possible.

Here are resources every new board member should have by the first day:

Governance Documents

These are most commonly compiled into “the board book.” Loose-leaf notebooks are okay, but PDFs are better. Post everything online using a secure portal on your organization’s website, a commercial service like BoardMax, BoardEffect, or or simple file-sharing applications like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Evernote.

A Peer Mentor

Have the board chair or governance committee assign each new board member a peer mentor. The best mentors are current board members who have been on the board long enough to know how it operates, but haven’t forgotten what it is to be new.

“Peer mentors have been helpful when we got the pairings right. Those folks who have a mentor who checks in with them, especially during the first six months, helps them get ready for their first board meeting, and sits next to them at board meetings usually get better integrated. Those sound like no-brainers, but you would be amazed at the difference it makes in getting a new member functioning.” — Terry Stone, executive director at CenterLink

Meeting Schedules

Make it easy for new board members to calendar board meetings. Using Google Calendar, Outlook, or Doodle can make it easier on everyone to set meetings and make changes.

Communication Plan

What is the emergency response plan? Who needs to know when the new board member meets someone who shows interest in what the organization is trying to do? Should the board pass volunteer prospects directly to staff or through the CEO? How does a board member send notice that she cannot attend a meeting?

Introduction to the CEO

Every new board member should have an introductory conversation with the CEO prior to joining the board. This can be done individually or as a group of new board members, with the mentor(s) present. The content of the conversation is not as important as the time for new members and the CEO to become more familiar with each other before tending to board business.

Clear Connection to the Nonprofit’s Intended Results

Every new board member should know how he contributes to what the organization intends to accomplish. At the least, this requires the new member to know what the intended results are, and to have a board member job description that describes the responsibilities of each member. Have the mentor and the board chair take time to talk with new members about how their service on the board advances the organization’s intended outcomes.

A final word – easy. Make it easy for your board and leadership staff to update information the board needs. Make it easy for new board members to access the information and put it to use. Make it easy for people to talk with each other and to ask questions. Make it easy for your people to provide exceptional service to the board, to the organization, and to the wider community.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”



How Nonprofit Boards Achieve Transformational Change

sept-blogBy Katha Kissman, BoardSource senior governance consultant

This post is one in a series written by board leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum. We invite you to join us for this event.

When my colleague, Beth Gazley (Indiana University-Bloomington) asked me to co-author a new study and book for the ASAE Foundation that would focus on the journey to good governance, I was intrigued. As a nonprofit practitioner for more than 30 years with a chunk of time as an interim leader, organizational development consultant, and senior governance consultant with BoardSource, I had first-hand experience leading or effecting change as a practitioner. But this would be my first opportunity to marry my practitioner knowledge with evidence-based research in partnership with an academic who specialized in the nonprofit sector.

The result, a book titled Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change, aspired to fill a gap in the current literature on nonprofit governance by combining three elements missing from earlier publications. First, it would focus less on the qualities of high-performing boards and more on the processes that ordinary boards used to reach higher performance. Second, it would emphasize both case studies and the applied tools and activities that are used to achieve higher performance. And third, and most importantly, it would focus on the work of professional and trade associations rather than nonprofits in general. In other words, this book was intended to offer guidance on the activities, tools, and decisions associations use to achieve higher performance — helping associations in particular, but other nonprofits as well, understand how to restructure themselves to perform better.

What was most surprising to me as Beth and I worked on the project was how my training in an entirely different area of my life — that of a clinical hypnotherapist — provided a lens to what were hearing from the more than 100 association leaders we conversed with via one-on-one interviews and emails. And that was all about the energy, fortitude, and commitment it took to understand and then to manage the human dynamic involved with the organizational team (board and staff) to achieve transformational governance change.

In “Getting to Good Governance,” an article that appeared in the July-August 2015 issues of Associations Now, Beth and I wrote: “Change engenders passion and emotion. Disagreements or conflicts may erupt. Paying attention to these dynamics and actively honoring the human element requires commitment, compromise, and work. This takes active management. Recognizing that a board is a team is a first step. These often relative strangers, who come from different backgrounds and geographic locations and who have varied personalities, come together possibly only four to six times a year. Adapting to complex group dynamics while serving the mission, dealing with operational goals, and making important decisions in a limited amount of time requires strong leadership, focus, and heartfelt work on the part of every person involved. Board members who make a commitment at the outset to understand relationships, trust fellow members, and accept a common purpose will find that banked social capital pays off later if and when the board has to change the status quo.”

The research data, the knowledge and resources, the quotes, and the case studies included in Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change provide key insights to those board members who know (or even think) change is needed. My presentation at BLF will hopefully give you the courage to take the first step toward that needed change.

Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change is available through the BoardSource bookstore.


Nonprofit Boardroom Taboos

shhh-excepboardsBy Gary Patterson, principal, Fiscal Doctor

When you were a teenager, do you remember one of your parents saying “Speak to your father [or mother] about that” when you asked an uncomfortable question? Fast forward to today. Based on conversations I’ve had with hundreds of nonprofit board members, many feel they get a similar response in the boardroom when they ask questions without easy answers.

The fact is, most boards have issues they would prefer to glaze over or avoid. In my experience helping both for-profit and non-profit companies with fiscal issues, I’ve never seen one that has all the money, key people, time, or comfort level to pursue all the opportunities and address all the problems that lay before them. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least talk about them.

At last year’s BoardSource Leadership Forum, I asked approximately 50 board leaders to identify the three top issues they felt their boards were avoiding. This year, I’ll be presenting the full list in the session titled “Boardroom Black Holes and Taboos.” In the meantime, I have three key suggestions that can help your board tackle sometimes uncomfortable fiscal issues and your organization attain success — not perfection but success.

  1. Get yourself into business of harnessing opportunities and solving problems through better CAPEX (capital expenditures) logic, which allows you to determine which issues to address with limited resources of people, money, and time. Some of you will be surprised to discover one or more historical activities (possibly galas) that require large amounts of resources actually no longer need to be done.
  2. Prepare for the blurring between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Remember the pain and anguish from those last Form 990 revisions? Attorneys and CPAs are drooling over the next round of Form 990 safeguards. As the disclosure requirements move closer to for-profit proxy levels, what additional levels of corporate governance, enterprise risk management, and cash management will you need?
  3. Set up a planned giving program if you haven’t already done so. Setting politeness aside, your donor base is very likely getting old. If you have looked at the average age of the donors consistently providing most of your funding, you owe it to those donors to help them maintain the mission they care about — and without new passionate donors, the legacy of those who supported your mission in the past may not be able to go forward.

My impression is that nonprofit board members seem to be living in the land of denial more so than their for-profit counterparts. Acknowledging an issue in time to actually solve it is much more effective than ignoring an issue until it becomes a looming catastrophe. Think of an 800-pound gorilla. This monster started as a 100-pound gorilla. Better to tackle it than a beast that nobody can control.

This post is the first in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, being held in New Orleans on November 9 and 10. Please consider joining us for two days of learning. You can learn more about the conference here.

B-Minus! Nonprofit Boards Can Do Better

leading-blog-imageBy Bruce Lesley, BoardSource senior governance consultant

In my community, the public schools dismissed their students for the summer last week, which means that some parents are spending this week contemplating what to do about Junior’s report card. He’s a smart kid and full of promise, so why is he getting B-minuses? And what can be done to help him improve his grades?

Nonprofit board members should be asking themselves the same questions. According to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 2015, nonprofit boards across the country also are earning B-minuses for their performance. Why is this when board members are smart people, just like Junior? Shouldn’t we too expect more of ourselves? I have some thoughts about this, but for now, some tips to help underachieving boards improve their grade.

Light a fire under your governance committee. Maybe it’s inactive and needs a more enthusiastic chair. Maybe you need to repurpose your nominating committee to focus year-round on the board’s engagement. Having this standing committee become more active will force the right conversations about roles and responsibilities, composition, orientation, effectiveness, and the right leadership. One colleague of mine even recommends making your corporate secretary the chief governance officer of the organization and asking him or her to chair this committee.

Repurpose your board meeting agendas so that there is less passive listening to oral reports and more meaningful dialogue on the most important issues. Call it generative work or strategic thinking, when board members are in the same room, the best use of their time is interactive discussion. This is more than just asking questions for clarification; it is when the dialogue generates better understanding among board members and new ideas that will advance mission and strategy. To free up more space for this interactive communication, consider delegating more oversight functions to committees, using consent agenda more aggressively, requiring written reports from your CEO and committees be sent out in advance, preparing visual dashboards for mission impact measures, or even holding a conference call in advance of a board meeting to review fiduciary matters — all so the in-person time can be spent better in interchange.

Close the feedback loop. Board member performance needs to be assessed at all levels, and then the aggregate data reported back to directors. How can a team improve if it doesn’t know how it’s doing? Assessment can be as simple as a 3X5-inch card used at the end of a board meeting for directors to share with the chair what they most liked or disliked about the meeting. Or a board can complete (as BoardSource recommends) a full self-assessment every two to three years and benchmark against its own performance over time. Even peer-to-peer assessments are starting to be used by some exceptional boards. And BoardSource has assessment tools to help with all of the above!

Be positive. Do you truly believe in the potential value-added to mission of an exceptional board? Do you truly believe in the benefits of a constructive partnership between your board and CEO? Maybe all of a board’s successes start with the right attitude, the right values of trust, respect, and interdependence between a board and its CEO. In Forces for Good, the authors state that “most of the (CEOs) we interviewed maintained that their relationship with the board was critical.” Recently some colleagues and I were deliberating about what characteristic most determines how good a board really is. The first answer was a board-centric CEO, one that truly appreciated all the value-added and benefits that a great board can bring to a mission. The second answer was board leaders who realize the importance of doing its job well in support of the mission, its constituents, and its CEO.

All of these considerations emphasize being more intentional about what it means to be an exceptional board and about implementing practices that will improve your board’s performance. There’s a lesson to be learned from those parents intent on helping their children succeed in school. They understand that our children are tomorrow’s leaders. But let’s not forget today. Nonprofit board members are today’s leaders. I encourage us to set equally high expectations of ourselves. Let’s live up to our own promise.



Calling All AmeriCorps Alums

excepboards-teamby Andy Davis, BoardSource director of training, AmeriCorps alum

A year ago, AmeriCorps Alums and BoardSource began to discuss a potential partnership. I immediately thought it would be a great idea because it would shine a light on new service opportunities for a group of individuals committed to giving back to their communities. However, as BoardSource’s director of training, an AmeriCorps alum, and the vice chair of the National Advisory Council of AmeriCorps Alums, I recognized that I was perhaps a bit too close to both organizations to be objective. Since then, as I reflected further on my own history, I have come to the conclusion that no matter my relationship with BoardSource and AmeriCorps Alums, this really is a great partnership. Board service is a wonderful opportunity for alums to continue to volunteer in a way that has lasting impact and meaning.

I learned the definition of a “board of directors” when I was about 11 years old. My father, the executive director of the homeless shelter in my hometown, was explaining to my grandmother why my family couldn’t attend a Sunday lunch — he had a board meeting. She asked what a board did, and he explained in a way that made sense to her, and me.

Because I grew up around a small nonprofit that relied on volunteers to help deliver its direct services, I grew to respect and admire those individuals who volunteered and, when old enough, started volunteering myself. And almost every single time I completed a volunteer assignment — for a school, a Boys and Girls Club, a food bank, or on the deck of the USS Missouri, for example — I would wonder, what else can I do? How can I become more involved? How can I impact the future of this organization? I wanted more!

So I joined AmeriCorps NCCC and helped get things done for America — both up front in operations and behind the scenes in back offices. And I wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. Today, there are nearly a million AmeriCorps alums. And that number is just a drop in the bucket for overall volunteering in the United States. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, more than 63 million individuals volunteered in 2014 — a number that should be admired and celebrated. But, let’s break that number down a bit. In the same link, we learn that 35- to 44-year-olds are most likely to volunteer (29.8 percent) and 20- to 24-year-olds are least likely to volunteer (18.7 percent).

So you may be wondering where nonprofit board service fits in. Well, according to BoardSource’s Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 2015, less than 17 percent of all board members are under the age of 40. When you look at individuals under age 30, the percentage shrinks dramatically to 3 percent. Why is this? Anecdotally, we hear that many younger people don’t know how to join a board or what it means to serve. Nonprofits tell us they don’t know where to find potential younger board members and aren’t sure what skills and interests they can bring to the table. What this says to me is that we aren’t doing enough to find each other, and that we are not communicating the vast array of skills and experience that Gen X and Yers bring to the table. The new partnership between BoardSource and AmeriCorps Alums aims to fix this issue.


CEO Transition: Are You Ready for the Inevitable?

excepboards-leavingBy Katha Kissman, BoardSource senior governance consultant; interim leader and organizational development consultant

BoardSource has long noted that one of the 10 basic responsibilities of all boards is to support and evaluate the chief executive. Another is the hiring of the chief executive. The first is a given — or should be. The second, thankfully, is not a regular board responsibility — at least, I hope not! But after working more than 30 years in the nonprofit sector, I would offer that these two are the most important responsibilities that a board must address, and address well.

Keeping an effective CEO engaged and happy shouldn’t be hard. The Ethic of Reciprocity (often referred to as The Golden Rule) essentially states “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” In a professional setting, management best practices help us understand that when we treat others well, we get the most productivity and reduce turnover.

That said, no matter how well we treat a CEO, he or she is not going to stay forever. It’s inevitable: One day, the CEO will walk out the door and on another day, a new CEO will walk in. What we can do, however, is keep our effective CEOs as long as possible and then manage CEO transition well.

According to BoardSource’s Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices:

  • Half of all CEOs intend to leave their posts within the next five years, yet only one-third of nonprofit boards have an executive succession plan.
  • One out of five nonprofit boards have not conducted a formal performance evaluation of its CEO.
  • One out of four nonprofit boards have not done their due diligence on setting executive compensation in terms of gathering comparable data and documenting their process and decisions.

Boards cannot afford to wait to address these issues until they receive a CEO resignation letter, have to let a CEO go, or, in the worst-case scenario, learn of an unfortunate turn of events that would preclude a CEO from returning to work. Boards need to act proactively for the good of the organizations they serve.

Here are simple yet concrete steps that a board can take now to prepare for the inevitable.

Make sure your governance house is in order

While Leading with Intent had lots of good news to share, the bottom line is that nonprofit leaders give nonprofit boards a “B minus” grade in overall performance. A correlation may be made between this and a CEO’s desire to stay with a particular organization. Because effective CEOs are in high demand, those who are good will likely lean toward employment with organizations that demonstrate a track record of strong board performance.

Ensure an effective and annual CEO performance review process

Typically a CEO receives the best feedback when all board members are asked to complete a performance assessment tool, which should be based on the CEO’s job description and stated performance goals. Results should be compiled so that the data reported is not attributable to a specific board member, ensuring candid reflection, and presented in a written format as well as a verbal discussion. In addition to praising and/or providing constructive feedback to the CEO, the results of a performance evaluation also should be used to set performance goals for the coming year and be shared with the full board.

With CEOs reporting as follows, boards have an opportunity to improve in this area:

  • 26 percent of CEOs indicate that they are not satisfied with the process used to evaluate their performance.
  • 23% percent of CEOs indicate that their evaluations are not based on performance goals mutually agreed upon by the board and CEO.


Executive Committees: To Be or Not to Be?

photo (6)By Robin Hindsman Stacia, BoardSource senior governance consultant; principal, Sage Consulting Network, Inc.

Not to be? Many of you may think that questioning the relevancy of the executive committee (EC) crosses a sacred line. If you do, it’s because somewhere along the way, we’ve allowed our executive committees to become sacred groups with the ability to make limitless decisions and act in lieu of the board’s full participation. And when I say “we,” I mean board members. Our executive committees didn’t take this level of power by force or coercion; rather, we have been giving away this power so we can do less! There, I’ve said it: Board members allow the executive committee to cover for their lack of engagement.

Just hold your horses, you say: Executive committees have the authority to act on behalf of the board, and they are a common standing committee. According to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, 78 percent of boards have executive committees, making them the most prevalent of all committees reported. Surely, 78% of nonprofit boards can’t be in the wrong!

Okay, maybe there are a few effective executive committees out there, but, in many more cases than we hate to admit, our executive committees are what were intended to be a good practice gone wrong. And I’m not alone in my desire to see them ‘not be.’ In the May 26, 2011 issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly, Simone P. Jayaux defiantly declared, “I’m on a worldwide mission to destroy all executive committees.” Why? Because board disengagement — something many, many boards struggle with — can be worsened by the presence of even a halfway functional executive committee. And, as the board’s engagement deteriorates, the executive committee grows in strength, becoming the de facto board and undermining the legal and statutory responsibilities of the full board.

If you’re among the 78 percent of boards that have an executive committee, the full board must retain its position as the primary authority for the organization and take steps to ensure that your EC doesn’t exceed its boundaries. There must be full transparency between the deliberations and decisions made by the EC and the full board. The take-away here is that board members can’t delegate their responsibilities, fall asleep on the job, and fail to maintain full engagement and accountability.

The following are some practical actions that will help your board improve its executive committee processes:

  • Consider if your executive committee is necessary for your board. Not all boards require an executive committee, and each needs to consider the added value and if the EC’s responsibilities could be handled by other committees or perhaps the board’s officers.
  • Make sure the bylaws detail the specific scope of responsibilities for your EC, clearly state the membership, and indicate when the EC’s decisions must be confirmed by the full board. The more structure the better — limit flexibility. Clearly identify what the EC should not do.
  • Use the EC to vet ideas and options for full board discussion, not decision making.
  • Ensure that there is a process in place for full board review of EC minutes and actions.
  • Consider the appropriate meeting frequency for the EC. Consider having this committee meet only when necessary and not routinely, which will minimize the possibility of diluting board responsibilities. Executive committees that meet more frequently are prone to doing more work — work that might be better delegated to other committees, your board officers, or even management.

Executive committees: To be or not to be? Emerging governance trends suggest that we change or eliminate our executive committees. That means we need to rethink business as usual and engage in an honest evaluation of the impact of our executive committees on our boards. Are we, as board members, enabling board disengagement by allowing our executive committees to make decisions for us? If so, it’s time to reengage and take back our power.

  • Stand for Your Mission
  • About

    BoardSource is dedicated to advancing the public good by building exceptional nonprofit boards and inspiring board service. BoardSource strives to support and promote excellence in board service, is the premier source of cutting-edge thinking and resources related to nonprofit boards, and engages and develops the next generation of board leaders.

    To learn more visit
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Connect

  • © Copyright 2014 BoardSource | 750 9th Street, NW, Suite 650 | Washington, DC 20001-4793
    Phone: (202) 349-2500 or 877-89BOARD (877) 892-6273 | Fax (202) 349-2599

  • Please note: “Exceptional Boards” is committed to facilitating meaningful conversations about nonprofit governance and nonprofit sector issues and welcomes guest bloggers and reader comment. As a result, the viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily represent those of BoardSource, nor can we endorse the accuracy or reliability of any content linked from this blog.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 685 other followers