Can Board Strength Be A Weakness?

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I recently had the privilege of working with an institution that had had been on a rapid growth trajectory since its relatively recent founding.  This growth had been driven, in large part, by the initiative of its strong[1]  board of directors. Like most people who work in the social sector, my initial response was ‘how fortunate we are to be working with such a strong board’, but as we moved through the planning process, I realized that a board can be too strong for an organization’s good. That is, their strength becomes a weakness.

From the outset, our interactions with the organization made it clear that the board relished its role of shaping the institution’s programs and services. They were energized by ambitious projects and committed to making their organization the best in class. While their efforts were admirable and had led to some phenomenal results, the unchecked zeal of some board members risked overwhelming the institution’s ability to execute. Through interviews with staff, funders, and an analysis of the marketplace, it became increasingly clear to our team that at this juncture, the organization needed to focus its resources on maintaining and executing its existing programs and services with excellence. We recommended a plan that involved more modest growth of new programs, rather than a push for total transformation of the institution.

Our plan resonated with the senior staff of the organization, who emphatically felt that it was the “right” way forward. Some members of the board, by contrast, were obviously disappointed. For them, the plan lacked energy and excitement. They wanted something big and bold, not tweaking and maintenance of existing programs.

When we brought the staff and board together, the staff was reticent to express their enthusiasm for our team’s plan. At first I was shocked. How could they have been so supportive in the staff reviews of the plan and then silent during the board meetings? I came to realize that the board’s strength was both an organizational asset and deficit. They were deeply engaged with organizational oversight and energetic in their fundraising efforts, but some members’ enthusiasm for wholesale and rapid change – and at times hard-charging attitudes to get it done – hampered open and honest communication with the staff. The board’s close oversight and evaluation of the executive director and its role in raising the funds for the staffs’ salaries created an unhealthy power imbalance.

Because the staff did not feel they could speak truthfully, the time and energy they devoted to maintaining existing infrastructure and programs went unnoticed by some board members. While the board busied themselves “blue skying” new tasks, staff quietly scrambled to keep up with existing work. Ultimately, our team was able to educate the board on behalf of the staff as part of our process. However, I fear history will repeat itself unless some of the members of this “strong” board learn to scale back their tendency to dream up new ideas and instead spend some time building trust and relationships with the institution’s staff.

For those of us who work in the non-profit space, it is a common trope that a strong board is an organizational asset. However, as this experience illustrates, strong boards – in the sense of being financially, strategically and managerially savvy – have a responsibility to keep their strength in check.

 

[1] The board possessed many of the characteristics that are cited in the literature as being important for board function, including their capacity for fundraising, strategy, financial oversite, and hiring and providing feedback to the organization’s executive director.