I recently heard from a long-time subscriber to Board & Administrator who sensed her time at the organization was coming to an end.
The North Dakota administrator was working with a very inexperienced board (average tenure: 1.5 years) and was being severely micromanaged because board members did not understand their role.
Here’s her story:
“I came to this position soon after the previous CEO had been fired,” the CEO said. The organization had just finished the year with a nearly $1 million deficit, following a year in which the nonprofit lost half a million dollars.
Tackling this challenge, the administrator stopped the unprofitable ventures outside of the nonprofit’s core mission areas and laid off all but essential staff. She also updated and enforced the organization’s credit policy to bring in receivables. Two lean years followed (one with a small loss, the other with a small profit) at the organization.
“We reduced total debt by nearly $1 million and the last two fiscal years we have grown,” she said. “The local Chamber of Commerce named our organization Business of the Year.”
You would think the board would be thrilled, but it wasn’t.
“Something happened during this period that cast a pall over the organization and my relationship with the board,” the executive said. The reason this organization was in such dire financial straits was because the board at that time didn’t understand its role, she said.
“No one on the board had ever received any training on the board’s job,” she said. “That changed when I took the position here, but this board only will attend a training grudgingly.”
Controversy erupted at the nonprofit when the CEO terminated an employee. Because the board didn’t understand its relationship to staff and the board’s role in personnel matters, it agreed to meet with the terminated staff member after he demanded a meeting with the board.
“This opened a real can of worms that took me months to resolve,” the administrator said. “Working through this mess also soured my relationship with several board members who could not keep their hands out of personnel issues.”
This is one example of why boards need regular training: When board veterans leave, the CEO needs to be able to rely on a core group of board members who understand the board member’s job. This requires regular training.
“After working through the staff termination issue with the board, two long-term members, including the chair, decided to retire. At that point, the board elected a new chair, and this individual decided ‘things had not been run right here.’”
The new chair believed it was his job to manage the CEO. This even reached the point where the chair managed the CEO’s work schedule. “I can no longer attend my monthly association meetings because he thinks I should be here working,” she said.
The executive had to drop the local Kiwanis Club membership to concentrate on work and is under fire to drop the nonprofit’s chamber membership because the chair believes one-and-a-half-hour lunch meetings “are a waste of time,” she said.
“This just looks silly because our organization has been awarded Business of the Year by the chamber,” the CEO said.
Boards need training. If they are dead-set against it, don’t take a job at that organization. When the nonprofit executive takes a new position, he or she needs to ask a question about the board and be ruthlessly honest in answering it: Does this board understand that its role is governance, or does it want to do my job?
There are many ways to provide the board with regular training that aren’t time-consuming:
- Slip the For Board Members section of B&A into their board meeting packets.
- Find low-cost or free webinars for the board to learn from.
- Ask your governance committee to survey the board on the topics it wants to learn about.
- Improve the quality of your nonprofit’s new board member orientation program.