8 Mistakes That Even Good Boards Make

March 10, 2017       Anne Wallestad      

The role of a board of directors is not an easy one. Strong governance and board leadership re­quire dedication and intentionality from each and every board member, as well as from the executive. It’s a big job, which — for most board members — falls on top of an already-maxed-out set of professional responsibilities.

    It’s no surprise, then, that even the best boards can get tripped up by these common mistakes:

  1. Underselling the Commitment
    One of the most fundamental challenges is getting the right people on the board. Given that challenge, it’s understandable that board leaders can be a bit over-eager when they identify a potential candidate, and they make the mistake of underselling the commitment. Instead of being honest about what’s really needed from the potential board member, they try to diminish or understate the commitment to try to increase the likelihood of a “yes.” The problem, of course, is that if you frame the job as “Not that much time” or “Not that much work,” that might be exactly what you get.
  2. Taking Shortcuts with Board Orienta­tion and Education
    In a similar vein, it’s not unusual that time isn’t taken to provide board members with orientation and ongoing education. It’s as­sumed that board members know what their roles and responsibilities are, and how to apply them within your organization. But ac­cording to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Non­profit Board Practices, more than one-third of nonprofit executives give their boards a C or below on “understanding board roles and re­spon­sibilities.” Since board members can’t do a good job if they don’t fully understand what the job is, it is wise to take the time to orient new board members and provide ongoing education for the full board. Even quick educational moments on such things as reading nonprofit financials or understanding conflicts of interest can make a big difference in the board’s governance performance.
  3. Fly-by-the-Seat-of-Your-Pants Meeting Planning
    Productive board meetings do not happen on their own. They require careful agenda planning, thoughtful preparation of background reading and materials, and skilled facilitation. And none of that is possible if executives and chairs are throwing together meeting agendas and materials at the last minute. Think of your board’s meeting time as a valuable and limited resource that needs to be maximized. Consider using a consent agenda as a way to save time on straightforward reporting and information-sharing, which will enable you to preserve discussion time for the most important issues facing your organization. And remember that some of the most im­portant work that a board does is framing and making sense of issues that require no im­mediate decision making but might in­form the way that the members think and deliberate for years to come. Those conversations are critical to your organization’s
    fu­ture, and simply won’t happen without thought­ful meeting preparation.
  4. Over-Engaging the Executive Committee
    Many boards have an executive committee, which isn’t a mistake in and of itself, but it can be if the executive committee wields too much power. Executive committees are typically designed to play a role with agenda-framing and — if needed — can provide counsel or urgent decision-making in between board meetings. It’s quite easy for executive committees to become an inner circle of board power, usurping the full board’s role by moving all of the real decision making and thinking to the executive committee. This is especially common when a board is relatively large, as the executive committee serves as a more man­ageable size for real deliberation and decision making, and the rest of the board is relegated to listening to report-outs on the work done by the executive committee.
    Boards and executives that enable themselves to get into this dynamic do so at their own peril. A large group of board members with full legal responsibility and voting power, but little opportunity to engage, is truly a recipe for disaster.
  5. Thinking It’s All About Fundraising
    It’s no secret that the majority of executives want their boards to be better at fundraising. But sometimes executives and board members are so focused on strengthening fundraising that they let fundraising priorities completely overtake the way that a board functions. The work of the board — including board meeting time — can become dominated by fundraising needs, and the board can lose focus on its most important responsibilities, which are providing broad leadership and oversight to the organization. Similarly, board recruitment can become singularly focused on large-scale givers, to the exclusion of other important perspectives or areas of expertise.
    Disengaged or disruptive board members can be “excused” for challenging behaviors be­cause they are big donors, eroding the culture and productiveness of the board. You need your board for much more than fundraising, so don’t make the mistake of letting fund­raising become the lens through which all board engagement is viewed or evaluated.
  6. Thinking It’s Not About Fundraising At All.
    Except for those organizations that simply don’t raise funds, it’s also a big mistake for boards to completely disregard the board’s engagement in fundraising. Some boards — or board members — insist that fundraising isn’t a board responsibility, and refuse to engage in helping the organization identify and connect with potential sources of funding. This is a misreading of guidance that makes the distinction between governing responsibilities (the board’s responsibilities as a full board) and the leadership responsibilities of individual board members, which is where fundraising responsibilities lie. Devaluing or disregarding the board responsibilities that take place outside the board room — such as fundraising and advocacy –is a huge mistake, and significantly limits the ability of the organization to build a strong external reputation and presence.
  7. Failing to Monitor and Evaluate Results
    Programmatic oversight goes far beyond CEO/ED assessment. Too many boards think that they can fully delegate programmatic oversight to the executive, and don’t take the time to understand programmatic quality and results. This is a big mistake, as the board’s role in programmatic oversight is essential not just to organizational accountability, but also to the board’s ability to play a meaningful role in future strategy and planning. Similar to the role that boards should be playing with financial oversight, board members shouldn’t micromanage or dictate what should be happening tactically, but they should have a good understanding of what’s working, what’s not, and what the executive is planning to do about it.
  8. Not Paying Attention to Board Per­formance
    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, far too many board members make the mistake of not paying attention to the board’s overall performance. Both the full board and individual board members must be held to a high standard of performance. This is ideally done through a formal governance committee, which is charged with leading the board’s efforts to manage itself. Governance committees do such things as lead board self-assessments, review and up­hold board policies and expectations, evaluate and ad­dress challenging issues with individual board members, and help cultivate a positive board dynamic and culture. With­out those critical functions, the culture and performance of the board will suffer, and the dysfunction or lack of engagement that ensues can top all of these other mistakes combined in terms of the negative impact on the organization’s work. There’s no question that providing strong leadership and governance is a big job. As a volunteer board member, it can be tough to prioritize all of the things that the role asks of you, and it’s easy to make mistakes. But being a truly exceptional board leader isn’t about being perfect. It’s about bringing intentionality and focus to everything that you do, and taking the time to learn and reflect as you go.

Anne Wallestad is president and chief executive officer of BoardSource in Washington, D.C. Her email is Anne.Wallestad@BoardSource.org and you can send a Tweet @AnneWallestad

  • board