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But a third problem—more than any other—has captured the imagination of the board-improvement field and inspired
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many common solutions. In this diagnosis, boards do not perform well because they do not know what their job is. When we discussed with 28 nonprofit governance consultants their recent engagements with troubled boards, 19 characterized the client’s problem as ignorance of or confusion about roles and responsibilities. Dozens of analysts have offered one version or another of an “official job description” for the board.This prescriptive literature can be distilled into five functions:
1. Set the organization’s mission and overall strategy, and modify both as needed.
2. Monitor organizational performance and hold management accountable.
3. Select, evaluate, support, and—if necessary—replace the executive director or CEO.
4. Develop and conserve the organization’s resources—both funds and facilities.
5. Serve as a bridge and buffer between the organization and its environment; advocate for the organization and build support within the wider community.
This roles-and-responsibilities approach to board performance has obvious appeal. With the problem defined as confusion about roles and responsibilities, the solution becomes clarity, and the holy grail becomes an unambiguous official job description. Ironically, in most work environments, the specificity of job descriptions increases as one descends the organization chart.Yet, here, nominally at the top of the organizational pyramid, trustees and executives seem to think that nonprofit organizations need only specify the board’s role to cure the board’s problem. In effect, boards can codify their way out of board problems.
PROBLEM BOARDS OR BOARD PROBLEMS? 15
The official job description is a reasonable point of departure to address the problems of new boards or inexperienced trustees. Even more established boards, with members who should know better, can drift into seductive but random activities that create little or no value for their organizations. Revisiting the official job description probably helps them, too. But the frustration with nonprofit boards, and of nonprofit board members, is not about inexperience. The bigger problem is the disappointing performance of mature boards with seasoned members.These are talented individuals and experienced trustees; their feeble performance is therefore especially disheartening. The conventional problems of performance— particularly confusion about roles and responsibility—offer an inadequate diagnosis.
from probLems of performance to problems of purpose
We contend that another problem looms behind these problems of performance: a more fundamental problem of purpose. Some advocates of the roles-and-responsibilities approach inadvertently acknowledge the problem of purpose when they reason that the board must be important since it endures as an institu-tion.“The widespread existence of boards,” wrote Cyril Houle, “means they must possess values which are apparently essential to modern life. It will therefore be useful to assess the reasons why boards are important” (1960).The very formulation of this approach raises a troubling question. If the board is so important, why is a whole literature required to explain why it is so important? What if one of the central problems plaguing the board is not, in fact, uncertainty about its important roles and
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responsibilities, but rather a lack of compelling purpose in the first place? We maintain that many board members are ineffectual not just because they are confused about their role but because they are dissatisfied with their role.They do not do their job well because their job does not strike them as worth doing well. In other words, we believe that board members themselves—in asking “Why am I here?” and “What difference do I make?”—have offered the best diagnosis of all.
This diagnosis is more illuminating if one asks not just whether boards are vulnerable to problems of purpose but where. Is the problem with the board’s most important, official governing work? Or with less important, unofficial work? If governance is the use of authority to set an organization’s purposes and to ensure it serves those purposes effectively and efficiently, then it follows that some of what boards do is not actually governing. Informal coaching of a CEO, advising and troubleshooting with staff outside of board meetings, volunteering on the front lines of service delivery—boards might perform these functions, and they might inform a board’s governing, but they are not governing per se. They represent unofficial, though not unimportant, work.
Even among the board’s official governing assignments, it is possible to deem some duties more essential than others. To make this distinction, it helps to ask which duties one can imagine a board delegating entirely—either to staff or consultants— and still claim to be governing the organization. Farming out fundraising and community relations (both of which are often shared among staff, consultants, and celebrity ambassadors) does not threaten governance in a fundamental way. But a board that outsources mission setting or management oversight is highly problematic, as troubling as a government that puts legislating or