I came across a recent Facebook post about nonprofit leadership that had all the makings of a soap opera plot. A solo-employee executive director realized she’d been manipulated by the very people on her organization’s board who should have protected her, and she was eventually forced to resign rather than being fired—all through no fault of her own. The list of that board’s bad behavior was vivid:
I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve seen these behaviors exhibited on only a few nonprofit boards. Most of the boards I’ve served on have been highly functional and collegial. But boy, what a difference those bad boards made.
In previous articles, I’ve reviewed how dysfunctional boards interact and what some of the consequences are for nonprofit organizations.
However, not all nonprofit boards are dysfunctional, nor are all board members stymied by personal issues.
Many nonprofit boards just plain work. Colleagues cooperate, staff members feel valued, and executive directors feel appreciated. Among those better-behaved boards, I’ve seen what I’m calling the Eight Permissions of Functional Boards. When board members and practices are healthy, the board as a community-in-miniature revels in freedom and flexibility.
THE EIGHT PERMISSIONS:
- Perfect Imperfection
- No Shame, No Blame, No Make-Wrong
- Freedoms of Individuality
- Honest Talk
- Acknowledge Reality
So how do these eight permissions help good boards become great boards and excellent boards soar?
Functional boards can accept the behavior of their members, even when that behavior sometimes falls out of line. If someone becomes angry, or feels hurt or sad, the board doesn’t devolve into rancor, fearful silence, or unhealthy caretaking. If relationships among board members founder temporarily, the board doesn’t collapse.
Functional boards do not require board members to get everything correct all the time. It’s okay for board members to sometimes be wrong about things. Functional boards don’t demand perfectionistic behavior. Instead, knowing that perfection is impossible, functional boards ask for the full-throated best their members can give.
NO SHAME, NO BLAME, NO MAKE-WRONG
Not every problem must be tracked back to its originator. Functional boards do not play the shame–blame–make-wrong game. Blaming destroys relationships and isolates individuals, and functional boards know that it’s okay for some problems to exist without finding the cause.
FREEDOMS OF INDIVIDUALITY
Feeling your feelings, thinking your thoughts, wanting what you want, having your opinions, and imagining what you imagine: these are five of the freedoms we as individuals have the right to enjoy, and they’re just as important for the members of a functional board. Limitations imposed on these freedoms mean that individual board members won’t bring their best selves to any discussion.
Functional boards want honest, open talk, not just during discussion of agenda items, but real talk among board members as much as possible. As with freedoms of individuality, without honest talk, board members cannot offer their best selves to their colleagues. Concealment foments distrust, and true motives will be revealed in things like voting patterns on board matters. If we’re saying one thing but voting another, we’re not being honest, and everyone will see it.
In contrast to dysfunctional boards, where denial, retreat, or even the threat of aggression can show up, functional boards are not afraid to acknowledge reality. They see problems in proportion—maybe sometimes after a little discussion and information sharing—and they don’t react with fight-or-flight behaviors. Instead, they take a collective deep breath, self-regulate like adults, and face reality.
Some boards are addicted to struggle, whether that struggle is within the board itself, within the nonprofit as a whole that the board serves, or within the community at large. Struggle, conflict, and charged emotions fuel the board’s interactions. Here’s the problem: struggle is exhausting, and unless the board resolves the issue(s) behind the struggle, the exhaustion becomes perpetual. What some boards don’t realize is that it’s okay to resolve problems. It’s okay to come to an understanding about differences and accept them without requiring one to dominate another. It’s okay for missions to be complete. It’s okay for programs to end on their sunset dates. It can even be okay for a nonprofit to dissolve itself when its work is done.
A board without trust is a board that cannot perform strategically. It’s a board that only dares attend to the minutiae of board functionality: lesser motions, uncontroversial sense motions, commendations, awards, lengthy discussion motions without calls to action, droning committee reports, and the like. And some board members will argue that these functions are critical. Perhaps some are. But for a dynamic board with vision and agency, they’re not enough. A board with mutual trust among its members recognizes that despite its members’ best efforts, sometimes they fail, and that’s okay. It doesn’t consign the board or its members to the dustbin, and it doesn’t run from difficult conversations. Instead, the board dusts itself off and keeps going. Reliability exists on mutual reliance.
Are you on a board that’s missing one or more of these elements? I’ve turned my experience with bad board behavior into helping others. Make an appointment with me on my Calendly schedule or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Credit where credit is due: This article was inspired by an image I found on Pinterest that was attributed to A Spiritual Journey of Healing. I completely lifted the phrase “shame, blame, make-wrong” from the great Annie Lalla.