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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff! Reflecting on the Nuances of Various Board Models: Governance Vs. Working

By Stephen Belenky, PMA Director

“While our members are quick to roll up their sleeves as needed, we try to stay out of the weeds, empower our capable staff, and adhere to the role for which the board was assembled: operational oversight, organizational advocacy and financial development.”

In a recent conversation with Kevin Henry – Chief Human Resources Officer at Snyder’s-Lance and Board of Director at the Harvey B. Gantt Center – I was struck not only by his clear and elegant articulation of the board’s purpose, but also the suggestion that boards often fail when they can’t distinguish the nuances of a nonprofit Governance Board from that of a Working Board, and neglect to commit to one model or the other.

Kevin stressed, “We know we can’t sweat the small stuff…we have the luxury of a capable staff and the organization demands that we think strategically about opportunities and challenges…therefore, we can’t afford to get too caught up in the tactical elements.” Kevin’s sentiments elevate the following key questions, which we will explore in this blog:

  • What are the differences between a nonprofit Governance Board and a Working Board?
  • How do you determine which model is most applicable to your organization?
  • How do you know if your board is working effectively or ineffectively?

Most nonprofit boards are linked by a common thread. They reflect an organized group of people with a collective authority to control and foster an institution, as well as commit to fundamental duties:

  1. Duty of Care – a level of competence and commitment to exercise reasonable care when he or she makes a decision as a steward of the organization.
  2. Duty of Loyalty – a standard of faithfulness and allegiance to the best interest of the organization when making decisions.
  3. Duty of Obedience – a consistency with the mission and central goals of the organization.

Yet, when we begin to ponder what work must be done, the administration of that work, and the establishment of policies to guide it, the similarities between various board models are fewer and farther between. In the case of the Governance Board, the board governs and oversees operations through committees but delegates management functions to the executive staff member. Committees, established along functional lines (e.g., finance, human resources, and programs) that parallel management functions, are used to process information for the board and sometimes do the work of the board. The committee structure and ambiguity in roles may invite board interference in management functions, but ultimately an effective board will avoid such interference.

Defining a Working Board is slightly more difficult, due to the fact that different Working Boards take on different profiles depending often on where the organization is in its life cycle and the availability of staff:

  • The Operational Board does the work of the organization and manages as well as governs it. This is typical of a board in the ‘founding’ stage of an organization and of boards in organizations that have no staff and that must rely largely on board members and other volunteers to achieve their aims. Board members seek to balance their strategic and tactical activity but often gravitate to the tactical out of necessity.
  • The Management Board manages operations but may have a staff coordinator. Board members actively manage finances, personnel and service delivery directly or as committee chairs and report directly to the board. Staff reports to board member managers either directly or through a dual reporting line to a board member and a staff coordinator. Again, board members seek to balance their strategic and tactical activity but some Management Boards are more reluctant to delegate tactical activity to staff than others.
  • The Collective Board works in collaboration with staff and are involved in ‘single team’ decision-making about governance and the work of the organization. Board members remain involved in tactical activity, including some of the service or management functions. However, the staff executive has strong influence on both strategic and tactical activity and may, in fact, dominate decision-making. Some Collective Boards are more effective than others in distinguishing their roles and responsibilities from that of the staff executive, particularly as they relate to executing strategic and tactical activity.

Ultimately, a successful nonprofit board will not only work to understand the differences between these models. It will take a thoughtful approach to determining which model is most applicable and have the discipline to commit to that model, even if it requires a restructuring of the board and a realignment of its roles & responsibilities. A successful nonprofit board will take the time to step back and assess; to allow its members the opportunities to ask and respond to strategic questions, including but not limited to:

  • Do we have a clear understanding and agreement on the purpose of our organization?
  • What are the basic values which guide our organization and our board?
  • Do we believe that the organization should/has the capacity to be run as a collective – with staff participating along with board members in the governing of the organization?
  • How much time is each board member willing to give to the organization in the next year?
  • How much trust does the board have in the ability of executive staff to ensure that the organization operates in an effective and ethical manner?
  • How satisfied are our members with the current board performance?
  • Who thinks we should change our governance model?
  • How much time and money are we willing to devote to increasing our own knowledge and skills to improve our performance as board members?
  • To what extent is it necessary for us (board members) to be involved in the delivery of programs and services, marketing, public speaking, etc.?
  • As board members, to whom do we wish to be accountable?

The majority of individuals serve on boards to enhance their professional development, contribute to their social status and/or fulfill an ideological passion. Individuals rarely yearn for the board experience that yields constant role confusion, strategic indecisiveness, and measureless impact. Unfortunately, these circumstances often translate into an ineffective board, lacking:

  • An understanding of institutional context – mission, tradition, and history
  • Capacity for learning – education and self-evaluation
  • A commitment to nurturing the development of the board as a group
  • A recognition of the complexities and nuances of the organization and its constituents
  • Respect and safeguarding of the integrity of the governance process
  • A vision for institutional direction

Simply put, the board is either disengaged, micromanaging, or inopportunely misguided in its efforts; in any case, failing to recognize its role as successfully done by our friend Kevin and his fellow board members at the Harvey B. Gantt Center. Some boards are clearly meant to be more strategic and less tactical than others. The identification and implementation of board models is not meant to be a ‘one size fits all’ process. However, we at PMA hope that all nonprofit boards will take the opportunity to assess, adapt, and strive for organizational excellence.

Stephen Belenky
PMA Director