Being a board member is easy

Has anyone ever tried to recruit you for the board of a non-profit society by telling you how easy it is? [more in the next pane…]

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“It is only 4 to 6 meetings per year, and those meetings seldom go for more that a couple of hours.”

“The organization is well run, all you have to do is review the financial statements every month.”

“Its no problem.”

“You already know everything about the society — you’d be good at it.”

… and so on.

Is the job easy? For some boards, where the work of the board is largely ceremonial and the staff take care of things, it can be easy. There are lots of situations were the board has the opportunity to act like a think tank and provide some useful perspective, exercise some oversight, but essentially rubber-stamp the work of the staff. If things are going well, this isn’t really governance, it doesn’t matter, and sure it is easy. As long as things are going well.

Here is the problem. Our community and our culture does not provide examples of good governance. In school you may have had some experience with Rules of Order in the Student Council, and there is some advice available in books and articles on how to hold effective meetings.

But most people don’t really understand the role of governance. Since board members of non-profits are unpaid, they are often seen as part of the volunteer structure.

In the org-chart, the board is the box up at the top. Clearly it has authority over management. As a result, most people see the board as a manager of management.

Since almost all of us have experience with management — either we are managers or someone has managed us — most people bring to the job of governing the techniques of management. There are many reasons that this does not work (and we’ll explore some of them in future articles here), but the main one is that the board shows up infrequently. Some boards meet as few times as once per quarter, and some, when things are desperate, may meet weekly. But compared to management, this is a small amount of time given to the task of governing.

Board members who take their jobs seriously will try to understand the situation as well as they can with the time they have, and make the best decisions possible. Since they are not giving the task the same time as management, they often have the choice of rubber-stamping management’s recommendations, or appearing to act as dilettantes when issuing their decisions.

What is the solution? My hope is that over the next generation our community will learn the function and tools of governing. It is possible to govern effectively when board members discover that their role is different from management. However, governing requires learning new skills. This is uncomfortable, and it takes time. It is not always easy.

Are the results worth the effort? We think so.

© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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