Most Small Nonprofits are Screwed


No matter the size, you’re still screwed.

There’s something wrong in the nonprofit sector. Really wrong. It’s a problem that can seem unsolvable because it’s so pervasive. Almost every executive director, CEO, development director, and consultant I talk to bemoans this problem. What is it? It’s this:

Your board of directors has lost sight of its primary responsibilities: they don’t act like they own the place.

Maybe it’s a structural issue with how boards are organized under the IRS code. Maybe it’s because executive directors are given the authority and responsibility to act like owners when they really aren’t. Maybe it’s because board members serve on too many other boards. There are probably many reasons for the situation in which we find ourselves. Does that make it less likely we can find solutions? I’m not sure.

What I do know from first-hand experience is that serving on a board of directors is usually not given the priority and significance it deserves or requires.

When filling a board position, the expectations and time requirements are downplayed if not dismissed altogether. A nominating committee will do anything to fill an empty board position whether the person they choose is a good fit, has experience, can give money or none of these. Sometimes they don’t even conduct an interview.

I asked members of a board of directors a few weeks ago who wanted to significantly advance the mission of their organization. Everyone raised a hand. Who wouldn’t? Don’t you want to significantly advance your mission?

But time after time after time, when faced with the opportunity to get more engaged in the life and philanthropy of the organization, a board will choose to defer or hand off to the executive director. That’s a recipe for mediocrity. It’s supposed to be a team sport. But when someone on the team won’t fill their role, you run the risk of failure.

After decades of neglecting the fundamentals of board governance and minimizing its role and importance, we’re left with organizations that can’t sustain even the simplest annual giving program let alone a complex strategy to advance the mission. Start talking about strategic or investment philanthropy and eyes glaze over really fast.

What can you do? If you care about your mission and are invested in trying to move your board beyond its current state, here are 7 things that can help.

1. Start talking to your board chair about these issues and help them learn more about creating a culture of philanthropy. What’s that? I wrote a post about it that you and your board chair can read here.

2. Bring in a consultant (like me) or someone from your community as a respected third-party to lead a conversation with the board about creating a culture of philanthropy. Find someone who can challenge them, not just inform.

3. Stop minimizing the responsibilities of board membership just to get someone to agree to serve.

4. If you already have an approved list of board duties, hold each person (and the board as a whole) accountable to them. Review the list at your next board meeting. Go over the list with any potential new board members.

5. If you don’t have an approved list of board duties, find some, give them to the board chair, and suggest they adopt them.

6. Find a mentor to help you through the process.

7. It has to start at the top. If you’re a development director or officer and you don’t have the buy-in of the CEO/executive director, you have to get that first or you’ll waste your time. If you’re the executive director and the current board chair isn’t willing to be your partner in the changes that need to be made, you may have to wait until there is a leadership change.

Bottom line: it’s the board’s responsibility to not only be concerned about and address these issues, but to be instrumental in creating the procedures and practices that ensure that the organization is moving forward.

How are you addressing the challenges of a disengaged board of directors?