Building Board Leadership in Community Organizations

Posted by: heather

It's time to approve the plan and budget of a community based organization and the staff is frustrated that the board is micromanaging and not focused on strategy. The board is frustrated that the staff is trying to get approval for programs that cost too much and haven't been fully explained. They each walk away disappointed that they have not been more fully engaged and appreciated.

The board/staff relationship is fraught with boundary and role challenges.

In organizations working to make meaningful change in the world, time is precious and there is rarely enough of it. We just want each player to do their job. However, the job isn't clear. Words like strategy, policy, plan, input and more are bandied about without a clear or common understanding of the terms, or how to enact the roles that would bring them to life, especially for board members who may be brand new to the board role, as was the case in the situation described above.

The dilemma-boards are "supposed" to "guide" the organization, but if board members have no previous board experience, and aren't equipped to carry out their responsibilities, they tend to revert to zones of competence, which will likely be the volunteer/micro-level tasks they did before they came onto the board. Community activists may focus on immediate tasks and short time horizons while organizational leadership requires a longer time horizon and, therefore, different quality decisions.

On the other hand, staff may not be inclined to tell their bosses what to do or how to do their jobs. But the truth is that the staff can have significantly more experience with organizational leadership than the board. I've seen staff try to manipulate the board towards a desired outcome so they can say the board made the decision.

Yikes. No wonder there is distrust and dissatisfaction.

In all organizations, but especially in those that draw their board members from the ranks of those who have not been on boards before, it is critical to provide the board members with the education they need to fulfill their responsibilities. This includes how this organization defines the roles, the options that exist to fulfill the roles, expectations, skills such as how to read a financial statement, the distinction between strategy and operations, the information necessary to make fully informed decisions, and how to function as a board member that is different from a volunteer, advocate, or other role.

Board development necessarily means clarifying the staff role. While there may be some short-term advantage in murky role boundaries, the long-term health of the organization and of the people involved calls for attention to effective roles and relationships.

Board leadership can be an important opportunity for individuals to develop their skill and confidence while also providing the organization with guidance grounded in local experience. That opportunity for the individual and the organization is best realized with focused attention on board development and board/staff relations.