Non-Profit Quarterly recently published a piece charting out the cyclic nature of boards of directors. If ever you have been frustrated with your board and wondered why it is acting the way it is or if you love your board and prayed the great dynamic would stay that way forever, it is worth reading the piece to better understand what is happening and where things are probably headed.
In the piece, author Julia Classen examines the cycle in the context of her own experience. She labels the stages as the Founding Period (which obviously only occurs once), followed by a recurring cycle of Supermanaging, Corporate, and Ratifying.
- Board runs the organization followed by an eventual transition to hiring an executive director.
- “board members serve because it fulfills a personal as well as a professional need.”
- Original board members begin to leave as they see the organization is running well with stable funding. New board members defer to the judgement and expertise of the executive until a crisis occurs. At which time, the board moves to the [Supermanaging Phase].
- Board members with professional expertise are recruited. They are more likely to question the executive and seek information from external sources rather than rubber stamp the executive’s suggestions.
- “…understand that serving on the board may benefit both their altruism and their professional development. Thus, they are more practical in their approach to board work and what they hope to gain from it.”
- Board focus may shift toward good governance and accountability. Board members who also volunteer may be viewed as unprofessional and compromised “because of their dual service to the board and the organization”
- “To some, the Corporate Phase is nonprofit governance nirvana. The committees meet regularly, the board is focused on mission and oversight, and decisions are made based on insightful and clear information provided by the executive director and leadership staff. “
- This ideal phase is hard to manage. Over inform the board and you imply they should manage rather than lead. Under inform and the board feels irrelevant. Classen lists questions executive should ask in order to maintain a good balance.
- Over time board vitality may wane. New members may be recruited to fill a slot rather than with an eye to propelling organization forward. Board depends on executive and staff to lead.
- “…boards tend to meet less frequently and/or for shorter periods. Expediency is important, as the board comprises increasingly prestigious and busy individuals. “
- Agenda is set by the executive and staff and board follows their lead allowing them greater autonomy.
- “They are less likely to be spending much time thinking about the organization beyond the 30 minutes preceding each meeting. In sum, the board is functional but largely disengaged from the organization. “
- Crisis occurs moving the board back to the Super Managing phase.
The full article is worth reading because Classen uses some specific examples of how these phases have manifested in different organizations with which she has worked. She offers some advice on how to recognize which phase the organization is in and take action to transition it toward the next phase without waiting for circumstances to dictate that you do.