Board members in management roles – updated

February 28, 2023

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 8:53 am

Originally published in August 2022, this edition of the post expands upon the suggestions I offered in August.

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. For purposes of this article, I’m going to lump them together as “management.”

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 practical steps to address the challenge. I have seen a few nonprofits employ at least some of these strategies, but rarely have I seen them deployed aggressively in combination.

The Challenge

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. Big-picture, governance is making sure the organization has the right boat, the boat is pointed in the right direction, and it’s well-provisioned. Management is rowing the boat.

If all an organization did was governance, though, that means the boat would simply sit in place. The actual mission “work” of the organization would never get done, nor would much of the behind-the-scenes administration necessary to support that mission work. 

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

Why is this a problem?

First, board meeting time gets filled up with discussing and coordinating management and programmatic tasks, which often 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, 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.

What do I mean by decision-making and communication norms? Norms are the ways we generally operate culturally; they are what seem normal.

In particular, governance “normally” tends to operate by consensus, with ample input from everyone before a collective vote.  That’s really important, particularly around governance responsibilities where all board members have legal duties to engage.

Yet, consensus and high-input decision-making processes are 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 the board meeting that turned into a detailed conversation about table arrangements for a fundraising event.

Bottom line: meetings become bogged down in the wrong topics. Board members tune out listening in on decisions/discussions that really should involve a small subset of the participants, if they should involve discussion at all. Governance responsibilities get neglected and it becomes harder to recruit new board members being asked to take on both governance and management tasks. It becomes a vicious circle.

Suggestions to Address the Challenge

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 clear about roles and that these roles include both board roles and management roles. Management roles will vary wildly by organization, based on your administrative and programmatic needs.

One person may take on two (or more) separate roles that fit into separate categories. For example, Person a might be both (a) a board member and chair the board recruitment committee and (b) also serve as newsletter editor.

The important point: when playing the “management” role (in this case newsletter editor), the “board” member is not acting as a board member, but rather as a volunteer. After all, there’s no inherent reason the newsletter editor needs to be on the board. (Conversely, the chair of the board recruitment committee really should be a board member).

Suggestion 2: Treat these management roles held by volunteers as quasi-staff in how they work. There should be written “job/position” descriptions laying out their general responsibilities and areas of authority. 

People playing these roles should be given authority to operate as a leader and make decisions within their area of responsibility, without having to get pre-approval from the board. With the added authority should come some responsibilities. Most importantly, people playing these roles should be asked to provide something in writing that serves as the equivalent to a “staff” report prior to meetings so that meetings aren’t taken up with oral reports that are of no value to those not at the meeting.

Accountability, as with staff, should be after-the-fact, with potential removal from their role.

Suggestion 3: Recruit for these roles. Identify what you most need from these roles, write the descriptions, and share them with those who may be interested. Treat this as importantly as you treat board recruitment, if not more so.

What if some board members opt not just to take on this second management role, but to leave the board because they’d rather do “program” than “governance. That’s okay!

Suggestion 4: Formally separate out the board meeting from a second management coordination meeting that addresses non-governance topics.  For efficiency sake, these can be back to back, since many of the same people will be involved. 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 ideally should include some non-board volunteers who’ve taken on an ongoing management role.

Importantly, for the “management coordination” meeting do not use the norms you use in the board meeting. The fundraising coordinator doesn’t get equal say on the newsletter content as the newsletter editor. The newsletter editor doesn’t need to weigh in on what someone is doing with regard to a specific program. The purpose of this meeting is to share essential updates and to ensure coordination is happening where needed between several people playing various roles, not to make collective decisions.

Suggestion 5: 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).

Suggestion 6: Focus on Communications

The strategies above don’t work if you don’t adequately communicate across roles. Written reports prior to board and management coordination meetings should be the norm. They should be shared across the team. Short memos should be written after board meetings and management coordination meetings encapsulating key decisions and action items. (With the board, this should be above & beyond the formal minutes).

While your management team doesn’t have to include board members, you probably need one board member to attend those meetings and serve as a liaison if they are truly separate.

Suggestion 7: Efficient Meetings

Clear agendas. Written materials shared ahead of time with an expectation they will be read so that meeting time can be focused on discussion and decisions, not oral reports. Active facilitation to keep people on topic. Stay out of the weeds unless absolutely essential.

I’ve sat through too many 2 hour board meetings that should have been 90 minute board meetings with even halfway decent facilitation. The collective time saved can be substantial.

Suggestion 8: Embrace collaborative tools

Small nonprofits that embrace technology spend a little time up-front for large time-savings down the road.

Most importantly, technology now allows “asynchronous” planning where multiple people can be working together on the same document at different times, without having to email it back and forth and not knowing who’s working on the latest version.

Example: Googledocs and googlesheets stored in GoogleDrive.

Example: GoogleGroups for email lists for just those board/management & program volunteers focused on a specific task, so that everyone else’s email inbox doesn’t get cluttered up with topics they really don’t need to track closely.

The above tools are free.

There are many even more robust tools for collaboration and communication that cost a bit, but can take you to the next level.

I’ve seen boards composed of older, tech-averse board members take the time to force board members to learn these tools and they’ve always been really, really happy 6 months later.

Suggestion 9: Set realistic expectations

For all of the above, and for your governance responsibilities, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Be realistic. As you make plans, a little boldness is good and can inspire. Excessive boldness can sap your energy when you inevitably fail.

If your team is naturally all optimists who historically have led you to bite off more than you can chew, assign somebody the role of “pessimist” who’ll be charged with the task of asking hard questions during board meetings.

Recognize that you don’t have to do everything everywhere all at once. If you realize you’re not doing well fulfilling 4 of the 10 board governance responsibilities, phase in doing better over the course of a year or two, not over the course of a month or two.

Suggestion 10: Keep the purpose in mind

There’s a bricklayer parable.

Short version: Bricklayer 1 is laying bricks. Bricklayer 2 is building a wall. Bricklayer 3 is building a school.

Who’s likely to be happier and stick with their task the longest? Obviously bricklayer 3 (unless you’re a MAGA trying to destroy public education, but that’s a different topic.;-))

What’s that mean? Find opportunities to make sure that your board and your management volunteers learn about and experience the positive good your organization is seeking to bring to the world.

Your feedback

I’ve only seen a few instances where organizations have gone full-in on the suggestions I’m recommending in this article. I remain 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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