Dr. Eugene Fram has put forth the following offering to help nonprofit boards gain recognize and understand why they might not be effective. While I tend to agree that Dr. Fram introduces fairly accurate descriptions of behaviors that nonprofit board members, execs and consultants have likely all witnessed, it does not sit well with me that we should label all nonprofit boards as being at universally being at various levels of dysfunction. I would pose instead that we acknowledge these descriptions as having some degree of accuracy while recognize these degrees of accuracy shift given board stages of development and compositions and a variety of additional variables that may also change at many junctures. I also believe that acknowledging is not enough. We must develop bodies of evidence that provide working solutions, both short-term and long term. That said, here's Dr. Fram's thoughts.
Article and studies from a Google search on “ Dysfunctions in Nonprofit Boards & Organizations,” yields 445,000 items in .32 of a second. These items show dysfunctions on charter school boards, church boards, healthcare boards, trade associations, etc.
Rick Moyers, a well-known nonprofit commentator and nonprofit researcher, concluded:
A decade’s worth of research suggests that board performance is at best uneven and at worst highly dysfunctional. ….. The experiences of serving on a board—unless it is high functioning, superbly led, supported by a skilled staff and working in a true partnership with the executive – is quite the opposite of engaging.
These data and comments can lead one to conclude that all nonprofit boards are dysfunctional. I suggest that nonprofit boards can generate a range of dysfunctional behavioral outcomes, but the staff can muddle through and continue to adequately serve clients.
Mildly Dysfunctional: Board meeting attendance can be a problem, left unattended by the board chair and CEO. Agendas are not completed within the meeting time frame. Strategic planning takes place once a year with little reference to it between annual meeting retreats. Goals are established without measured outcomes.
On the other hand, budgets and finances are reasonably well handled. Incremental growth each year is modest. Board recruitment takes place largely based on board contacts and friendships, with a few recommendations by the CEO. Most everyone on the board is mildly or fully dedicated to the organization’s mission.
Moderately Dysfunctional: All of the above dysfunctions, plus one or more of the following ones:
• The board chair and/or the CEO receive heightened deference in board discussions.
• Important decisions are made without full participation by all board members. One of two directors set the tone for the discussions and the outcomes.
• Either the board chair or CEO has inadequate backgrounds to develop a robust board. Nearly all agenda topics center on operational issues.
• The board does not trust the CEO but is unwilling to take action to remove him or her.
• The mission is not clearly defined and “mission creep” can be a problem.
In this instance, the staff can be productive, if some managers are able to isolate staff from the board dysfunctions.
Highly Dysfunctional: Many of the following board behaviors are exhibited:
• The board is divided into unyielding factions, a la the current US congress.
• Board discussions go beyond civil discourse into personal barbs, often disguised as humor.
• Board committees are not functioning properly. Important decisions are often delayed for a year or more.
• Rumors about the board conflicts are reaching funders, who are asking questions about the rumors.
• It is becoming difficult to recruit talented board members or professional personnel.
• The board chair and other directors refuse to acknowledge the problems.
There is little that the staff can do in this situation, except to hope for a funding angel to cover the financial problems that will develop. However, I did observe one organization that recovered from such highly dysfunctional board behaviors and finally succeeded in recruiting more talented board members. It also adopted a new governance format. The change led to some directors to resign. (One was insisting that the directors should evaluate individual staff personnel!) However the mistrust between the board and staff, as a result of the dysfunctional board behaviors, continued for decades.
Please let me and Dr. Fram know your thoughts.