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In effect, by constructing their job around the fiduciary work of oversight, nonprofit organizations have placed board members in a position akin to that of a substitute teacher.As an institution, the substitute teacher works effectively. It assures school administrators and parents that children who might run amok in the absence of a teacher remain under control. But the work of the substitute teacher is singularly unattractive.Adherence to
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minimum standards—not trying to teach, but merely trying to keep order—is as (or more) challenging than actually teaching. It is also far less rewarding. Board members suffer from this substitute’s dilemma. Society has essentially asked trustees to keep order.As a result, board members become disengaged.The more disengaged they become, the less likely trustees are to ensure accountability—the very reason we created boards in the first place. By asking for a little, we get even less.
If the problem of purpose is most acute with the board’s official governing work, it is tempting to conclude that looking for unofficial work might provide sufficient appeal to keep board members engaged in their essential governing work. And to some extent, this is what boards commonly do. But this path to meaningful engagement is blocked on two fronts.
Some Important Unofficial Work Is Undemanding
Some of the board’s most important unofficial work does not really depend on the efforts of individual board members, and therefore does not provide them with opportunities for meaningful engagement. This partly explains why boards can be so important to their organizations yet so unrewarding for their own members.This type of work poses for board members the predicament of the monarch in a modern, democratically governed state.While the institution of the monarchy helps create a national identity, reassures and unifies the country in times of crisis, marks important events through ceremony, and develops the tourism economy, the individual monarch deserves little credit for any of these results. And to the extent that the work involves endless ribbon cuttings, award ceremonies, and grand
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parades, there is not much stimulation either. Boards and board members are similar in at least three respects:
First, a board can create legitimacy for an organization. Unlike the business sector, where stakeholders can judge a corporation by financial performance, observers in the nonprofit sector tend to rely on a number of proxies to determine what constitutes a good organization. Potential funders, clients, and even employees look at an organization’s board—especially if it is a distinguished one—as evidence of legitimacy.They are far more apt to ask “Who is on your board?” than “What does your board do?” Board members need not do anything to create legiti-macy—beyond lending their names to the organization’s letterhead and occasionally attending a public function or official event associated with the organization. The board’s very existence creates legitimacy.
Similarly, the board provides managers what organizational theorists call “sense-making opportunities” simply by meeting (see Chapter 5).The mere prospect of a board meeting—where little or nothing may actually happen—forces managers to prepare written and oral reports that make sense of organizational events, recent challenges, and data about performance. Management must be able to communicate to the board an integrated and sensible account that describes and interprets the organization’s situation. Presumably, a more inquisitive board will compel managers to be better sense-makers, but the mere occasion of board meetings goes a long way by itself. A board meeting could be canceled at the last minute and something good—more thoughtful and focused management—would still have resulted.
As an entity, the board also encourages vigilance by managers. Nonprofit executives often say, “The board keeps me on my
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toes” or “I can feel the board looking over my shoulder.”As useful as this is to the organization, keeping managers “on their toes” is not likely to be engaging for board members, any more than state troopers find it stimulating to park at the side of the road because their mere presence slows traffic.Troopers can keep drivers on their toes while they themselves are literally asleep at the wheel.
Some Unofficial Work Is Rewarding but Discouraged
If official work is too episodic or tedious, and if some unofficial work is more institutional than personal, board members have the option of participating in other, more gratifying unofficial work. Boards of new organizations, even organizations with full-time staff, participate routinely in much of the hands-on, day-to-day work of the organization. As a result, they know why they are there and what difference they make. In doing this work, however, board members are repeatedly reminded that they must not cross the line into “micromanaging” or “meddling.” The rules about what constitutes permissible board work are somewhat mysterious. Fundraising, advocacy, and community relations make the short list of official duties, but human-resource management and program development do not. Why? It is true that organizations can never have too much money or influence, or too many friends. Board members are often good at fundraising and community relations; they generally perform these roles ably and willingly. But these are not, as we suggested earlier, absolutely essential governing duties. Board members are not uniquely qualified for this work; managers often perform both functions alongside board members.Why, then, are trustees not guilty of meddling in these instances? Probably because