August 23, 2011

Executive Directors Should Invest More Time on Their Boards

The more effort nonprofit leaders put into supporting their boards, the happier they are with the board's performance—but few leaders spend enough hours working with trustees to make a difference.

That insight comes from a report called The Board Paradox, by CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation, where I work. It's the last in a series of three briefs that report on a national study of more than 3,000 nonprofit executive directors.

The briefs present survey results that were not included in the recent Daring to Lead 2011 report, which was released last month. (I am a co-author of the main report and the sole author of the brief on executives and boards.)

The online survey for Daring to Lead asked executives a series of questions about their boards. We asked about their relationships with their board chairs, how much time they spent working with and supporting their boards, and whether they were getting help from board members in key management areas.

To supplement this survey data, 70 executive directors participated in focus groups in San Francisco and Washington, DC. In all five focus groups, executives spent much of the time discussing their relationships with—and in many cases their frustration with—their boards.

In analyzing this information and putting together the brief, two things stood out.

First, many executive directors don't spend all that much time working with their boards. More than half of survey respondents said they spent 10 hours or less per month supporting their boards. Ten hours may sound significant, but that is just 6 percent of a full-time executive director's time. Maybe even less, since many executives work more than 40 hours a week.

Second, executives who spend more time on their boards are more satisfied with their boards' performance. As an example, among executive directors who said they spent less than five hours a month supporting the board, just 13 percent said they were very satisfied with the board's performance. Among those who spent five to 10 hours per month on the board, 34 percent were very satisfied.

Taken together, these two findings suggest that many executives may be under-supporting their boards—and suffering the consequences.

And that, in part, is the paradox referenced in the title of the brief. Some executive directors view their work with the board as an unwelcome distraction from their "real" work. For that reason, they spend as little time on the board as possible, at the same time wondering out loud why the board can't be more self-sufficient and why it doesn't give them more help.

However, this "neglect and grumble" strategy doesn't improve board performance. To get more out of their boards, executives need to invest more time.

I recognize that this is a tough sell for overextended executives. But our evidence suggests that it pays off.