Board members, please check your egos at the door – Nonprofit AF

[Image description: A weasel or stoat with a brown coat and white underbelly, crawling halfway out from under a wooden platform. They look pensive. Image by trondmyhre4 on pixabay. I think I may have used this image before. I am not sure. Oh well! Can’t hurt to look at this cute little munchkin again.]

Hi everyone, I had to go to the emergency room for severe pain in my right side, and found out I likely have kidney stones and it may take weeks for it to resolve. I’m on some pain medications. So this post may be slightly cranky and possibly filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Drink lots of water and cut back on sodium. Kidney stones are not fun; 3 out of 5 stars, would not recommend.

A while ago, I wrote about the Rule of One-Thirds when it comes to boards: One-third of boards are helpful, one-third are useless, and one-third are actually destructive to their missions. Of the two-thirds of boards that are useless or destructive, a lot of it can be blamed on the fact that the default board model we’ve been using is archaic and makes little sense. Let’s take a group of well-meaning people who see one percent of the work, who often have little to no nonprofit experience, and who many times don’t reflect the community being served, and give them vast power over the organization. (And while we’re at it, let’s have them conduct business through Robert’s Rules, a set of rules formalized literally 145 years ago, in 1876).

While our sector works to explore new governance models, we need to address other issues with boards, namely that many board members, and specifically board chairs, have warped perceptions of their importance, combined with delusions of wisdom. Board members’ egos can be one of the most aggravating things about working in this field. It is probably one of the biggest drivers of EDs/CEOs quitting their jobs to pursue a career in real estate.

Boards are groups of volunteers who give a lot of time, money, and skills to nonprofits, and should be appreciated. But like funders, you wield enormous power in our sector, which means no one is telling you the truth, and the truth is that many of you are causing a ton of damage. So, if you are a board member, and especially if you are a board chair or will assume this position, please check your egos and remind yourselves of these things:

1.You, the board, and other board members are not the boss of the ED/CEO: Boards have an important role in maintaining legal compliance and ethical standards at their orgs. Over time, that has led many board members to somehow think they’re basically the supervisors of the ED/CEO. It is ingrained in all of us, and EDs/CEOs will think along this line too. I myself have introduced a board member at an event and joked “this is one of my bosses.” Yes, the board can hire and fire the ED/CEO in the traditional model, but that does not mean they are the supervisors of the latter. This is not a perfect analogy by any means, but I liken boards and staff to legislative and executive branches branches of the US government, respectively. Just because the legislative branch can impeach and remove the president, that does not mean that Congress members and senators are the “bosses” of the president and their staff. So stop thinking and acting like you’re the boss. And everyone, stop joking about it.  

2.You are almost guaranteed to know less than the staff on just about everything: Because of power dynamics, staff often hold back their opinions, and over time you start to think you know more than the staff on a variety of things. You don’t. This is not a question of your intelligence. Staff spend significantly more time on the organization’s work, because that’s what they’re paid to do, so of course they will know more than you. So when you have a conversation about anything related to the organization and its work—finances, fundraising, staff compensation, capacity building, strategic planning, etc.—and you find yourself disagreeing with the team, remind yourself that you have a fraction of the information and experience that the staff has.

3.Just because you have expertise in an area, it doesn’t mean it will be helpful: When I left my position as ED of one of the orgs I led, one of my colleagues, Mike Quinn, gave some advice to the board as it began its search for my replacement: If you have someone with HR experience on your board, do not let that person lead the search process. This at first made no sense. But as I gained more experience, I realized how valuable this advice was. Many board members come from corporate backgrounds, so their expertise may not translate to a nonprofit setting. More importantly, because of power differentials and other factors, it is very difficult for board members to be objective and not enmeshed in complicated dynamics. For example, if you hire a consultant to lead the search process and it doesn’t go well, you can fire the consultant; if you’re a board member leading and you suck, what can the org and staff do to remove you without it biting them in the ass? Your expertise may be helpful in the right setting, and it may be helpful at this organization in varying situations, but there is no guarantee that it will be, and sometimes it may actually set the organization back.  

4.You need to constantly assess how your personal experiences and biases are affecting the org: I heard stories of a board member preventing a staff leader from getting a pay raise because the staff would make more than the board member. How is what you make at your own job relevant to what someone else is making? If you can’t be objective about that, get the hell off the board. But it is often more subtle than that. For example, if you are not or have never been a parent, you may not be as supportive of paid family leave. If you’ve never worked as a case manager with too many cases, you may never completely understand burnout and what it may take to prevent it. If you’re a white dude, you will never comprehend what it’s like for women and people of color. And again, because you wield power over the staff, they often can’t be honest with you about your privileges and lack of information and how it’s affecting the policies you are supporting or opposing.

5.You are constantly behind staff on social issues and may be preventing progress: One of the biggest frustrations staff have is that they tend to be more up-to-date on progressive issues and changes than board members are. That’s because this is part of their work, so staff will spend more time in trainings, conversations, and reflections than board members do. Yet board members, who are usually way behind on these issues, have more power and oftentimes use it to prevent progress. For example, a colleague told me the staff wanted to add pronouns to email signatures, but board members were opposed to it, citing that it’s too “political.” Unless you are intentional about spending time and energy keeping up with the conversations around race, equity, accessibility, etc., chances are high that your opinions are flawed and you shouldn’t even weigh in on anything until you catch up.

6.When you speak by your lonesome self, you are like any other volunteer: We all know the truism that the board speaks as one voice and that board members as individuals cannot make policies or mandates that the staff must follow. And yet some of y’all keep forgetting this. I had a board member got pissed off at me over some decisions we made about our annual gala, and he sent an email to “subpoena” all the staff meeting notes for that quarter. Yes, I’m pretty sure he used the word “subpoena,” and now my sides hurt from remembering that and laughing. Please remember that as a board member, you don’t have any formal power that the organization and its bylaws did not assign to you. You are a volunteer like any other volunteer, but, let’s be honest, you’re usually way less useful than other volunteers in the org.

7.Your ego may be the final straw that causes the ED/CEO to quit: The ED/CEO job is stressful. Most people in these positions spend a lot of time daydreaming about quitting. I had a board member scold me once during an evaluation meeting because I was running around so much to raise money for the organization and was often not in the office. “I feel like the parent of a high-school student telling him to stay home and do his homework.” Later on, this same board denied giving me paid family leave when my second baby was born, and told me “the board will decide later how much unpaid leave we can give you.” They did not realize that I nearly resigned twice that year because of their words and actions. Remember how much pressure in on the staff, and if you can’t be supportive as a board, at least keep your shenanigans to a minimum.

8.Your need to think about the long-term impact of your actions: It’s astounding how many smart people suddenly lose a significant portion of their reasoning skills as soon as they join a board. I hear countless stories, for example, of an ED/CEO asking for a reasonable raise (for themselves and/or the team), the board denying it, the ED/CEO quits, and the board now spends months and significant resources to hire a new leader. Your need to save a few bucks in the short run, or to teach the ED/CEO their “place” or whatever, can cost the organization ten times as much in terms of money to hire a search firm, time and energy to design and run the search process, time for the new leader (or co-leaders) to get their feet wet and reestablish relationships, etc., and the org’s work may be also affected. Is that worth it?

9.Sometimes the best thing you can do for the organization is leave the board: Effective board members constantly assess whether they are helping or hindering the organization. They recognize that just because they were helpful in a different time or context, it doesn’t mean they’re adding value now. Take time to reflect on that at regular intervals, and if it makes more sense for you to leave, then do so gracefully and with minimum energy on the staff’s part to manage your emotions and need for validation. You can still support the org’s work in other ways, such as by continuing to be a donor and advisor as appropriate.

All right, I know all these points are a little harsh. I am on boards and I need to remember these points too. There are amazing boards and board members out there, and they play critical roles, and you can be among them, widely loved by everyone at the organization, and when you get a plaque commemorating your service on the board, it won’t be because staff are desperately trying to get rid of you (A tactic that I am dubbing “Plaque and Sack”).

For that to happen, you must be thoughtful and intentional about your role, any biases you have, any misconceptions you’ve picked up about nonprofits and boards, and you need to leave your ego behind.

OK? Try to be a kidney, not a kidney stone.

From NPR: “Want to support the people in Ukraine? Here’s how you can help“