Board members in management roles

July 19, 2022

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:55 pm

A challenge unstaffed nonprofits face is that board members necessarily take on roles that are not board governance.   These other roles are hard to categorize with a singular term.  They include management, administration, coordination, program administration – pretty much anything that one would expect to be done by staff in a large organization.

This challenge isn’t just for unstaffed organizations.  It is also true for many small or even medium sized nonprofits where the group’s ambitions exceed the staff capacity, leaving board members playing additional non-governance roles.

I have often been tasked with assisting clients on how to help their boards be more effective.  For smaller organizations, I have repeatedly found that confusion regarding the additional non-governance roles taken on by directors is a problem that metastasizes in a variety of ways to make the board dysfunctional.

This article is my attempt to both explain the challenge and to point nonprofits towards some new (potentially revolutionary) steps that are worth exploring.   I have seen few nonprofits employ these strategies, so I’m genuinely looking for feedback.  Do my ideas make sense?  Have you heard of nonprofits employing similar strategies?

Let’s start with a basic premise:  in any nonprofit, there is a need for governance and management.  (Here, I’m using management as a catch-all term for everything that is not governance). 

The board must govern.  Everything else can be delegated to either staff or other non-board volunteers.

It would take an entirely separate article (or book) to fully explore what fits into the governance category.  I’m fond of BoardSource and the way they lay out 10 responsibilities of nonprofit boards. 

If all an organization did was governance, though, the actual mission “work” of the organization would never get done, nor would much of the behind-the-scenes administration necessary. 

The result in small organizations:  board members take on management roles in addition to their governance role.  And this leads me to my most important point:  too often, in board meetings and board governance discussions, these extra roles are treated as just another part of their governance role, rather than as a separate non-board role.

Here are three ways this can cause problems.  (I’m sure there are more).

First, board meeting time gets filled up with discussing and coordinating management and programmatic tasks, which almost always seem more urgent.  The result: the board doesn’t spend as much time on governance as is needed to meet governance responsibilities.

Second, even between the board meetings. board members spend so much time addressing management and programmatic “work,” they lack the time or mental energy to perform their governance roles to the level required.

Third, the board applies to management the decision-making and communication norms meant for governance. In particular, governance normally tends to operate by consensus, with ample input from everyone before a collective vote.  That’s a recipe for inefficiency (or even paralysis) when it comes to management tasks.  I sat through a board meeting where an agenda item was to receive everyone’s input on a draft email newsletter and it was a deadly waste of time. Don’t even get me started on one about the table arrangements for a fundraising event. 

So how do you get past this conundrum? After all, if the organization had funds to pay for staff, it probably would.

Suggestion 1:  Be explicit about the fact that a board member may have both their board role and a second volunteer “management” role with an organization.  You could be a board member and also the email newsletter editor, for example.  But the latter is not actually part of your board service, since there’s no inherent reason the newsletter editor role has to be performed by a board member. 

In general, I’d recommend that these management positions/roles be filled by appointment by the Board President/Chair for 1-year terms or ad hoc as the situation presents itself. 

Suggestion 2: Formally separate out the board meeting from a second management & coordination meeting that addresses non-governance topics.  Take a 5-minute break between these two meetings.  The latter meeting may just be a subset of the board who are actually needed for it; and it may also include some non-board volunteers who’ve taken on an ongoing role.

Suggestion 3: Treat those who have volunteered to take on a management role as quasi-“staff” in terms of how they work.  There should be position descriptions.  They should provide the equivalent of a “staff” report prior to meetings.  It should be understood that they have authority to operate as leader in their area of delegated responsibility and should be held accountable afterwards, rather than having the board consulted on decisions ahead of time.

Suggestion 4: Just because a volunteer takes on a “management” role with the organization (e.g. leading on some program), doesn’t mean you should elect them to the board, especially not to “fill a slot.”  Reward and acknowledge people playing these non-board roles on your website, in your communications, etc., but don’t fill up your board with people who aren’t fully committed to the “governance” responsibilities that come with service. 

This may mean jettisoning some people from the board who really just want to volunteer in a management role.  It’s better to have a smaller board that focuses on governance than a larger board with uneven participation on governance because some “management” volunteers are sitting around the table without the time or expectations to actually govern.

Of course, it’s okay for some people to have dual roles – if they have the time to do so and understand they have two sets of responsibilities – governance (board) and management (volunteer).

Your feedback

I’ve only seen a few instances where organizations have operated in the way I recommend.  I’m genuinely interested in hearing from others who have addressed the challenges I’ve raised either via something along the lines I suggest or some other method.

Shoot me an email or go ahead and comment on this blog.

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