June 30, 2011

Do We Expect Too Much From Boards?

Nonprofit board members did not get very high marks from their executive directors in the recently released "Daring to Lead 2011" report.

The report, produced by the Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint, is based on a national survey of more than 3,000 executive directors of small to midsize nonprofit organizations. (I'm a vice president at Meyer and a co-author of the report.)

Although "Daring to Lead 2011" was intended as a study of executive directors, it is often difficult to separate the issues that affect executive directors from those that affect boards. And it's a reminder that executives and boards have a complicated and symbiotic relationship.

In general, the report is critical of boards, citing relatively low levels of executive-director satisfaction with board performance, modest levels of board-member engagement (at least as reported by executive directors) in almost every area of board responsibility, neglect of the executive's annual performance review, lack of insight into the business models of the organizations they govern, and failure to provide adequate support for new executives after they're hired.

Admittedly, these criticisms are based on survey responses from executive directors, and plenty of board members have tales of woe about how poorly they are served by their top executives. However, the results are not anomalous. Other studies that included the board member perspective have produced similar findings.

If "Daring to Lead" is a report card on board performance, then boards are barely passing.

Or maybe we just expect too much.

Board members are, after all, volunteers. Many serve with little or no training or orientation and have limited time and resources. Maybe we should just be grateful for what they are able to do and stop having such unreasonably high expectations. Maybe we should start grading on a curve.

Even if you don't buy that argument, "Daring to Lead" highlights an obvious disconnect between what most of us think boards ought to do—particularly when it comes to fund raising but also in many other areas—and how boards function in the real world.

And if we're not willing to expect less, we need to figure out some new approaches to helping boards measure up to high expectations.

Any ideas?

P.S. Thanks to the many readers who posted thoughtful comments to my earlier post, "Should Foundations Do More to Strengthen Boards?" Some of those comments address the question above—and I plan to respond in my next post. I'd still love to hear from those who haven't weighed in yet.