Spotting and Fixing Dysfunctional Nonprofit Boards

By Alex Counts

I have served on several nonprofit boards of directors and written two books about those and other leadership experiences. I’ve learned that building and sustaining high-functioning governing bodies is arduous, time-consuming work, but it’s worth the effort. Run well, they can bolster an organization’s revenues, provide access to influential figures, inspire confidence in stakeholders, help manage risks, improve leaders’ performance, and contribute to the crafting of a compelling mission and strategy.

Sadly, many nonprofit boards miss out on these benefits and are more or less dysfunctional, based on a 2014 report by the Urban Institute and my three decades of work in the field. It’s a topic that management literature has little to say about. People usually don’t like to draw attention to the fact that they were part of such a group. One of the rare case studies, “Should It Survive? Charles Dunlap and the National Legal Foundation,” focuses on an organization that no longer exists, which may have freed those involved to talk openly. 

To help fill the gap, I wrote in detail about an example of a weak board that I unsuccessfully tried to reform and from which I was ultimately forced to resign. That recounting complements this article in order to take on the challenging issue of board dysfunction. I’ve found that drawing on my personal experience is tricky—it can hurt important relationships if done carelessly—but necessary, given the dearth of information.

In my 30 years of experience, I have observed three main types of unsuccessful nonprofit governing bodies:         

  • Rubber Stamp Board. This type of board approves whatever management proposes and often plays the role of cheerleader. These organizations tend to be run by charismatic chief executives who value their autonomy and assemble a board with the expectation that its members are compliant and mainly serve as “window dressing” to reassure external stakeholders. 
  • Micromanaging Board. This board takes on key management functions in addition to its proper governing role. The staff becomes disempowered and often passive (or passive-aggressive) in the face of repeated intrusions into what they rightfully expect would be their areas of authority.
  • Balkanized Board. These boards consist of people who are concerned about only one part of the organization—often the program they support financially. They typically avoid trying to see how all the pieces of an organization fit together, leaving that task solely to the chief executive. The fragmentation can be dangerous when an organization’s revenues shrink and priorities must be reevaluated quickly and holistically.

It’s much easier to notice red flags early and nip problems in the bud. Here are a few examples of nascent board dysfunction and how to deal with them:

1. Misplaced Loyalty 

2. Usurping Management Functions 

3. Unexamined Performance

4. Stifled Dissent

5. Tolerating Misbehavior

6. Accepting Balkanization

Given the multiple crises facing our world—from COVID-19 to climate change—this must change to help achieve the solutions we need. It’s more important than ever that every governing body regularly assesses its performance, goes outside its comfort zones, embodies professional standards, and puts the success of an organization as a whole above anything else.

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