When is a nonprofit board "micromanaging"? Of course there is no pat answer to this question. And of course, nonprofit execs might be more ready to provide an answer about when a board is micromanaging than a board. My own professional opinion is that one answer rests in what is referred to as a board's stage of development. An infancy-stage board, without staff and faced with all the tasks of getting everything "done" likely spends its meetings in discussions about details and assignments and this is appropriate or else nothing would get done. And yes, the consequence is that long range planning, policy setting, and even taking care of the board (governing tasks) will likely be set aside.
In its juvenile stage of development, a staff person is likely recruited to take care of the business that board members have tired of but the board still likely sees to the day-to-day and does little governing. But in the adolescent stage, the need for governing by the board increases as resources and programming falls more to the hands of staff. But at the same time, the board, now ensconced in the details, does not easily move to governing. And in the mature stage, clear distinctions are achieved between that which is governing and that which is managing. And yes, boards can work this out in earlier stages but tend to not. And yes, boards can fall back into their non-governing role after having even touched their governing role. And yes, a board can be in one stage while the organization and its management can be in different stages.
In today's Washington Post article there was an article about nonprofits in Florida facing a decision about their continued use of Donald Trumps Mar-A-Lago. Mar-A-Lago is a high-end beautifully appointed and located banquet facility favored by nonprofits for holding big, expensive and apparently lucrative fund raising events. Some nonprofit representatives interviewed for the article expressed their concerns that some of their donors will now be questioning the future use of the facility given the "reputation" of the facility's owner and particular incidents reported as having taken place. In the article:
....the Susan G. Komen Foundation is leaning toward finding a new location for its Perfect Pink Party on Jan. 14, a million-dollar breast cancer fundraiser it booked a year ago.The charity has no position on Trump, the GOP presidential nominee, but wants to keep its event separate from “controversies unrelated to our mission,” said Andrea Rader, a spokeswoman for the organization. The group won’t make a final decision about whether to abandon its deposit until after October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But, Rader said, “those are things that have to be discussed.”
What I found equally fascinating about the dilemma highlighted in this article was stated as such:
Margaret Holman, who runs the fundraising consulting firm Holman Consulting, said charities would have to focus on the fact that they had already signed contracts with Mar-a-Lago and put down deposits. But behind the scenes, she said: “People are going to take this to the full board and let them air their full concerns. Charities who have already engaged are between a rock and a hard place.”
So the question for today: when is the location of a benefit a governance matter? Recognize that the answer to this question is not so simple as the nonprofits in question in this article are all mature stage organizations with presumably mature-stage boards. Some factors then to consider about what is governance. First, we know that nonprofit boards are responsible for fiduciary and strategic decisions that affect an organization's potential and ability to achieve mission. Central to fulfilling mission, we also know that boards have a responsibility as advocates to play a role in representing the organization to the public. And, we finally know from BoardSource, that besides fiduciary and strategic conversations at board meetings, generative conversations should occur that maximize the board's expertise to identify what's going on in the community along with strategic solutions that could favorably or negatively affect their organization's pursuit of mission.
Given this definition about what is governing, a conversation about what donor's might think about locating an event at a conceivably controversial location might well rise to the board's level. I would pose however that such a conversation, like all effective and efficient governance conversations, should only be conducted with information. For instance, asking a few key donors about their concerns and also reviewing evaluations from previous years should provide data to inform the conversation. Being fully informed about a topic is what I believe to be essential to an intelligent governance conversation.