I confess that sometimes even this Pollyanna gets fed up.
I don’t get fed up with the same things as most people in this field, though. I get fed up with blame and intolerance. I get fed up with pointing fingers at symptoms, focusing and refocusing on addressing those symptoms, drilling deeper and deeper, unpacking and re-packing – and never addressing the cause of those symptoms because “That would be too hard” or because “That touchy feely big-picture stuff is not practical.”
And while this could be said about the issues our communities face (poverty, illiteracy, crime), nothing makes me as crazy as the amount of symptoms-centered blame that is leveled at boards.
We so accept that level of blame that we don’t even realize how much it has seeped into the everyday assumptions and language of the nonprofit world (and I mean nonprofit – this is deficit thinking, pure as can be).
Boards Behaving Badly
Lists of the things Boards should do
Laments about boards not doing the lists of things they should do
Holier-than-thou “experts” talking about boards as if they were errant children needing time out
They’ll never change
We accept this blame-ridden conversation as the norm. And I am fed up with that as well.
If every board in the world is a candidate for board development work, we don’t have a board problem. We have a system problem.
We have created a governance system that is impossible to do well, spiraling with minutiae and detail and shoulds and prescriptions and legalese. We have told boards their job is to lead. And when they try to consider the big picture (which is what leadership is about) they are told, “No, your job is first and foremost to pay attention to the dollars – to legal and operational oversight.”
They join the board because they want to make a difference. We tell them it is not their job to talk about making a difference. Their job is to talk about balance sheets and personnel issues.
They get bored. They stop attending. Or worse, they do the adult equivalent of bored kids shooting spitballs – they nitpick. They micromanage. They do the million and one “acting out” things we blame them for.
Then we consultants get paid big bucks to please-oh-please fix those symptoms.
We train them. We give them manuals and worksheets and agendas. We teach them to recruit board members – good ones this time – people who will attend, participate. We help them create policies with consequences for failing to attend these meetings that are so horrifically boring that being kicked off is almost a relief.
Except we still have board members who want to make a difference, who still have no opportunity to help make that difference, on or now off the board.
Consultants and other experts blame out of frustration.
There is a path out of that frustration. And unless you have tried it, please don’t give me your opinion of why you don’t think it will work. Because my 10 years of experience doing precisely this tell me it is the only thing that does work.
Ask them why they don’t attend.
Ask them why they are disengaged.
Then make their meetings interesting.
Make their meetings meaningful.
Make their meetings about things that matter.
Make the first and largest part of their meetings
about creating the future of their community,
and the last and smallest portion
about monitoring the organization’s activity last month.
Give them a report of the past
Give them time for generative discussion about the future.
And then go buy more chairs for your board room. Because they’re going to start showing up.