Tuesday, July 16, 2024



Nonprofit AF: The default nonprofit board model is archaic and toxic. Let’s try some new models

July 6, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest post by Vu Le was originally published in the blog, Nonprofit AF.
Hi everyone, before we dive into today’s post, two quick announcements. My friend, the awesome Kishshana Palmer, and I are having an Instagram Live conversation, Rooted AF, tomorrow July 7, at 5:30 p.m. ET.

These Live events are unscripted conversations where we discuss whatever is on our minds, so likely fundraising, philanthropy, equity, and Kish’s awesome new venture providing a supportive network for women of color.

Also, next week, July 13, is the launch of the Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) movement, as I wrote about here. It will kick off with a virtual event “Let’s Make Fundraising Less Racist” on 7/13 at 11 a.m. PST. The CCF Hub will launch on that day too; it’ll be a place to explore ways to fundraise that are aligned with racial and economic justice. Sign up here so we can send you the meeting link to the launch event and address to the Hub when they are ready.

OK, let’s talk about boards. First off, let me just say that I know lots of amazing people who serve on boards. Board members are volunteers who contribute time, money, talents, connections, and even the occasional shoulder to cry on during challenging moments. Without the awesome folks on my board, the two organizations that I was ED of would not have been nearly as successful. I am also currently serving on two boards of organizations I love. I know how hard boards and board members work, and we owe a lot to the brilliant board members out there who are helping us make the world better every day.

However, we need to admit that boards in general are seriously problematic. I have a Rule of One-Thirds when it comes to boards: 1/3 of them are helpful, 1/3 are useless, and 1/3 are actually harmful. This means that 2/3 of nonprofit boards are useless or harmful. For every good-board story, there are countless tales of crappy boards. Those who micromanage the staff. Those who get buried in operations, wasting their time scrutinizing font selections and toilet paper purchases. Those who prevent progress, like the boards who refuse to allow their organizations to publicly support Black Lives Matter, thinking it’s too “political.” Even among the boards I’ve worked with, I’ve dealt with my fair share of crappiness, like the time my board blocked a paid family leave policy that the staff all supported and the entire sector is moving toward.

From our Partners

But how could boards not be crappy? We are talking about a structure where groups of volunteers who barely know one another, see one percent of the work, often don’t reflect the communities we serve, and who may have little to no experience running nonprofits, being given vast power to supervise leadership and determine values, policies, and practices. Why did we think this weird structure would work?

We have been in denial about the destructiveness of our sector’s default board model. Over the years, we have developed a learned helplessness, thinking that this model is the only one we have. So we put up with it, grumbling to our colleagues and working to mitigate our challenges, for instance figuring out ways to bring good board members on to neutralize bad ones or having more trainings or meetings to increase “board engagement.”

What we need to do though, is completely reimagine the board and experiment with some new structures. A while ago, I was lamenting the glaring failures of the default board model when colleague Vanessa LeBourdais, executive producer and creative director of DreamRider Productions, mentioned that her organization had been experimenting with a new model, which they called Evolutionary Governance. “It’s a little ‘woo’,” she said, which I think means hippie or touchy-feely. Among other things, it included the board and staff sharing power, the board being a supportive partner and sounding board for the ED, the board doing nothing if “nothing” is what is needed at various moments, everyone doing a lot of inner work. It requires an understanding of the minimum legal stuff the board is required to do, having that stuff done, and then being free to do much more interesting things. I know Vanessa and DreamRider are working to put their model down in writing, and I’m excited to see it. We need less “Robert’s Rules” and more “woo”!

Also in Canada, a collaboration between Ontario Nonprofit Network and Ignite NPSReimagining Governance encourages us to think of governance in a holistic sense, something shared in an ecosystem that includes staff, board, and community, instead of just being concentrated at the board level. “We need to critically examine the very design of governance so that effective governance is not wholly dependent on maintaining an effective board.” The idea that the board is responsible for almost all governance responsibilities is pretty archaic and ridiculous if you think about it, considering again that the board oftentimes has the least amount of knowledge and connections to what is happening on the ground. I’m looking forward to seeing the experimentation and lessons that come out of this work.

Meanwhile, I am on the board of Creating the Future, a movement and experiment to change systems and create a more humane world, rooted in founder Hildy Gottlieb’s research and work. CTF has also been wrestling with the complexity of creating a new structure. We have been discussing a model where the formal “minimally viable board” fulfills the absolute minimum legal requirements and does little else. This may then be combined with a second, less formal but larger, more expansive, more inclusive (and more fun!) “integrity board” that reflects the community and its values.

A critical common theme among all three of these approaches is the recognition that boards have very few legal requirements. These vary from state to state in the US and I’m not sure about Canada and other countries, but often are just “have three people, set some by-laws, meet once a year, file financial records.” What this means is that most practices we’ve associated with boards over the decades are COMPLETELY OPTIONAL! They are traditions we’ve just passed down to the point where we think they’re legally required, but they’re not! The board hires the ED. Who says?! The board meets once a month. Why?! The board approves the budget. Not necessarily! Many practices are ensconced in by-laws, but bylaws are easily changed. (Creating the Future is trying to craft a one-page set of bylaws, because there are few specific legal requirements on what these bylaws entail!)

Anyway, the point is, we’ve been putting up with this crappy board structure long enough. Yes, there are some good boards, and plenty of great board members. But the structure is archaic, weird, glaringly white, and full of corporate people who know little about nonprofits and often have less lived experience and who often are too busy to bother learning (but who still insist on being in charge!) So, it’s time to try some new stuff. This is challenging, because if we had an effective structure that works for everyone, we would already be using it. The important thing is for us to give ourselves permission to experiment.

This will require unlearning a bunch of no-good, very bad philosophies that have been toxic for our sector. For example, a deeply internalized belief is that the board is the “boss” of the ED/CEO and thus the entire staff team. This sets up a dynamic where the staff are often undermined by less-informed board members and must operate in a pervasive environment of permission seeking, which leads to inaction or ineffective actions.

Another destructive belief is that the board’s main loyalty is only to its own mission. This often prevents nonprofits from working together and perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games. I’ve had colleagues lament to me of their boards being unhappy with their helping out other organizations, such as introducing donors or passing on a grant proposal or sharing critical community data. The mission-centeredness of boards jeopardizes our sector’s ability to work together as an ecosystem of interdependent elements needed to do this work well.

As we experiment with the board of the future, it may look like many different things, but I would love to see boards that are ecosystems-minded and think about the entire sector not just individual missions, work in tandem with other boards, are focused on possibilities not liabilities, reflect the people the org serves, encourage risk-taking, take strong courageous public stances against white supremacy and injustice, are fully engaged in advocacy and systems change, and trust the staff and work in equal partnership with them.

Our work has gotten even more urgent lately. We must start challenging every philosophy, system, and practice that stand in our way of being effective. One of the biggest barriers to our sector’s ability to fulfill its potential has been our default board model, which is based on a white corporate way of doing things. Let’s stop using this model. Let’s stop trying to succeed in spite of it, like something we have no choice but to put up with. Let’s burn it down and experiment to create a model, or several models, that we can all be excited about.

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