5 Symptoms of an Unhealthy Board

By Robert Acton, Principal & Founder at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

I had the distinct honor last Fall of presenting to a roomful of 250 nonprofit CEOs and board members at the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Seattle. In the middle of my talk, I asked participants to exercise their creative muscles by turning to a neighbor and responding to the following discussion item:

Describe your board’s culture with the title of a movie, song or TV show

As participants engaged in the exercise, I kept hearing pockets of laughter arise from the small discussion groups. Curious what they were coming up with together, I gathered the room back together and asked for a handful of volunteers to share their answers. One by one, as audience members yelled out responses, the room filled with uproarious laughter, perhaps because of the creativity demonstrated by each response, but I suspect more out of a sense of shared experience, frustration and exasperation. 

A few of my favorites:                                                                 

Grumpy Old Men

“All By Myself”

Titanic

Breakfast Club

He’s Just Not That Into You

While I love the originality, what these responses represent is obviously disheartening. Boards of Directors govern and guide the work of social good organizations providing vital services to the community. Yet the picture of board service painted by these responses – homogeneous, dysfunctional, disengaged and on the verge of potential calamity – is not encouraging.

Over the course of my career as a nonprofit chief executive, board member and governance consultant, I’ve observed five common symptoms of an unhealthy board. You might recognize one or more of them seeping into your organization.

1. The Silent Start: Board members sit in awkward silence as they wait for the Board Chair to call the meeting to order. They don’t seem to know (or even like) each another. You can cut the air in the room with a knife.

2. The Frantic Beg: Less than half of the Board is present at the meeting’s start time. The chief executive begins feverishly calling and texting board members, begging them to dial-in to achieve quorum. Those who arrive on time wonder if it’s worth it.

3. The Great Escape: One-by-one board members drift out of the meeting early, or worse, drift off to sleep. Those who stick around to the end also wonder if it’s worth it.

4. The Dominator: The chief executive or Board Chair dominates the conversation. There is little opportunity for others to contribute. Despite the diversity of experience, knowledge, and skillsets represented by those around the table, board members are rarely invited to engage.

5. The Paper Chase: The Director of Development has to chase down the annual personal contributions of board members, repeatedly, at the end of the fiscal year. Despite clearly stated expectations for board member giving and fundraising, it’s as though board members are channeling Charlton Heston: “I’ll give you my money when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”

The remedy to these common symptoms of an unhealthy board seems like a relatively quick fix, doesn’t it? Show up on time and stay to the end. Extend a hand and get to know one another. Make your contribution early and actively participate in the fundraising effort. In meetings, create room for the meaningful contribution of all.

But the underlying problem, in my view, is that many boards simply aren’t healthy at a much more fundamental level. To borrow a phrase from Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale School of Management, they haven’t figured out how to operate as a “robust, effective social system.” 

Too many boards are composed of a group of people who haphazardly landed together. Rather than being intentionally on-boarded, new board members found themselves off and running blindly at their very first meeting. Little effort was made socializing new board members into the existing group of directors. Board members pop in and out of board meetings; making room for out-of-meeting social time is out of the question. In short, they are a group of relative strangers charged with shepherding the work of an organization they don’t know particularly well, yet we need them to be a dedicated team of community leaders working closely together to drive impact on a cause close to their collective hearts.

Many years ago, I came across four markers of personal health in a book that has had a special influence on my life: The Power of Full Engagement by James Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The authors describe how a fully-engaged individual is identified by four characteristics. In my consulting work with nonprofit boards, I have adapted these four characteristics as markers of health for nonprofit boards, as well.

Healthy nonprofit boards are:

1. Emotionally Connected

2. Mentally Focused

3. Physically Energized

4. Spiritually Aligned

In a post next week, I will unpack these Four Markers of a Healthy Board and will share tips and tricks for bringing each one to life. In the meantime, I invite you to give my exercise a try. Add a comment below describing your board’s culture with the title of a movie, song or TV show. Have some fun and give it a go!

5 comments

  1. ADAM L STANLEY

    Great piece. I left the Governing Board of an organization when I realized my time and travel would keep me from being an active and engaged Board member. I have seen signs of each of these five unhealthy traits and wish more Boards discussed Board health more frequently.

  2. José Albino

    Great read Rob – and so true.
    hope you are well..

  3. Carol

    I’m so happy to read this and see our board is not guilty of any of this. However, the board is guilty of going rogue on projects, with members deciding that they are being effective if they dream up something and just do it without an inclusive plan. I’m trying to change this

  4. Lousian

    “All By Myself” 🙂

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