Dogs and Boards

As I write this, my son’s dog is trying to terrorize the neighborhood.  Hard for a dog who weighs under 23 pounds.  But she feels that if she barks enough—even though her high-pitched yelp is merely irritating and not scary—she will be able to keep the neighborhood in check.

My much bigger dogs could tell her a thing or two about being the neighborhood watchdogs, but they seem to be content letting her try to strut her stuff.  Such as her stuff may be.

As she—Noodles—makes her way around my living room, yelping and growling and feinting at the front windows, I can’t help but think about some boards and, more to the point, a few board members I’ve known.

We’ve all known these board members—the ones who want to rule, and to rule by intimidation.  They’re loud, they’re demanding, and too typically they have nothing very positive to add.

Fortunately, most people who agree to serve on nonprofit boards are not like Noodles.  They have no need to posture; no desire to (pretend to) rule the roost.  They simply care about the work that is being done and they want to do whatever they can to help.

Okay, almost anything except, of course, fundraise.

So much of the work we do at Janet Levine Consulting is helping boards to get on board with fundraising.  We also do a lot with roles and responsibilities—what are they, how do you fulfill them, and—always—what do you, the board member, need from staff in order to accomplish what you are supposed to be doing.

What we learn most of the time is that what is needed is clarity.

“She wants me to fundraise,” we are told, “but I don’t know how and I don’t know who I’m supposed to ask.”
“I’m supposed to provide oversight, but for what?  And how do I do that?”

“I feel that I’m always failing to do what I’m supposed to do—but I don’t know what that is.”

Communication is the key to clarity—being very specific about what is needed, how to get there, and what support there is to help board members reach their goals.  Too often, as we talk to board members (and to staff, children, spouses, partners), we use shorthand, expecting them to understand completely what we are thinking.  But sadly, they usually don’t.

Clarity for boards starts with a very specific job description.  What does it mean to be a board member; what—exactly—will you be asked to do.

Often we rely on giving our board members lists from BoardSource or other organizations that say here are the board member roles.  But we neglect to make it personal.

The National Council of Nonprofits  states that board have three essential roles:

  1. Duty of Care: Take care of the nonprofit by ensuring prudent use of all assets, including facility, people, and good will;
  2. Duty of Loyalty: Ensure that the nonprofit’s activities and transactions are, first and foremost, advancing its mission; Recognize and disclose conflicts of interest; Make decisions that are in the best interest of the nonprofit corporation; not in the best interest of the individual board member (or any other individual or for-profit entity).
  3. Duty of Obedience: Ensure that the nonprofit obeys applicable laws and regulations; follows its own bylaws; and that the nonprofit adheres to its stated corporate purposes/mission.

What, exactly, do those mean at your organization?  For some, the duty of care will definitely include making sure the spaces are clean, but for most, it will mean something very different.  And it will be different for each organization.  Be clear about that; explain what the board members do and what they do not.

If you are the ED, make sure that you are clear about what you expect from your board members—and what you are willing to do to get them there. Open and honest communications will turn a fraught Board/ED relationship into one that is if not exactly fantastic then headed in the right direction.

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