Accountability and nonprofit boards

Friday, March 4th, 2016

Expectations of nonprofit boards – and of those who serve on them – are established by tradition and maintained by the status quo (Carver, 2002).

An expectation of nonprofit boards is they are accountable to achieve something on behalf of the community that created them. How do boards establish what is expected of them?

Last night, I was struck by the ethical issues at the Wounded Warriors nonprofit. In the CBS News report, a long-time supporter and major fundraiser was asked if the board of directors should be held to account for the scandal that is now emerging. Without hesitation, the supporter said “Yes.” (You need to note that a CBS executive serves on the Wounded Warrior board.)

But what is accountability? How does a board know to whom it is accountable? How does the board know for what it is accountable? How do people in the community know that they are accountable to ensure the board is truly representing them? How does the board know what their community really thinks?

Over a period of several months, the Xylem Group has explored these questions with academics, nonprofit leaders, and elected government leaders. What we’ve been hearing and learning are being brought to a broader audience on Blab.

Look for more on Blab and join us when you can!

Carver, J. (2002). John Carver on board leadership. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Would you buy 30-year-old technology?

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

The ad reads: “Car ‘phones. They’re no longer the privilege of the chosen few.” In 1982, I actually had one of these Vodaphone babies. I was climbing the corporate ladder of a Fortune 500 company in Chicago and got one installed in my company car. Yes, the company provided me with a personal car (every 50,000 miles I got a new one) and all the gas and maintenance (those really were the good old days). My employer was on the cutting edge of management effectiveness and efficiency. I was part of testing the technology.

My “mobile” car phone was the size and weight of a very large brick. And it was truly a car phone because the base was mounted to (and used power from) the car. I didn’t need to go to the gym to lift weights because the handset provided a good deal of dead weight training. Those of us testing the Vodaphone used to joke that if it quit working, it would make a great boat anchor. I’m surprised I never got whiplash from lifting the handset to my ear while driving. Okay, so yeah. If using your cellphone with your bluetooth is a driving hazard, just imagine how dangerous I was on Lakeshore Drive!

Now here’s what I carry around today: a phone that is not tethered to anything (except maybe my hand or earbuds). It’s about the weight of a pair of scissors and about the size of three packs of dental floss laid side-by-side. And it doesn’t merely connect me by voice-to-voice over cellular. It’s my personal data assistant, office manager, and personal entertainment center. It also responds to my whims. (Siri is my new love, but don’t tell my husband!)

So why do boards of all types and sizes still run with 30-year-old technology? Yes, the basics are still sound. Compare today’s smart phones with my car phone 30 years ago. Why would you choose to carry around a big, old brick that doesn’t do much versus a small, sleek device that caters to your every whim? Is your board functioning with a mindset from 30 years ago? Before you say no, consider this.  Nonprofit organizations proliferated in the 1980′s (Board Source, 2003). Much nonprofit regulation did too. Not surprising that governance structure, culture, and practices emanated from that period. Businessmen populated boards and they brought their management expertise to the boardroom. Unfortunately, management expertise does not necessarily translate to governing expertise. In the management mindset, governing is typically viewed as “management one level up” and tethers a board to the past instead of creating the future.

Why does it seem like transformational governance is still the privilege of the chosen few? Board members and executives, please throw the 30-year-old+ mindset out the window. C’mon now. Don’t say that you don’t know what I’m talking about. At association and nonprofit organization conferences, I still hear the same complaints that I was hearing 20 years ago. Here’s the chronic complaint: why does my board micromanage (i.e., get caught up in administrivia)? Because they don’t have anything more important to do. Because they haven’t found a way to delegate effectively and know their wishes for the organization will be fulfilled. Or, the board recently had a crisis that involved a major financial risk (e.g., embezzlement, lawsuit, the ED who was the “rainmaker” just left). The list goes on and on. People tend to revert to old, dysfunctional behaviors when they feel unsure or threatened or are just plain bored. Governing from this mindset is like picking up the Vodaphone and expecting to have Siri grant your next wish. Remember the implication when you expect different results from doing the same thing over and over again.

The magic of smart phone technology did not happen because Steve Jobs said, “Let’s redesign the Vodaphone!” The magic happened because Steve Jobs had a vision of something sleek, powerful, and ready to go to work for you out of the box. Why would you buy 30-year-old technology when you could have an iPhone?

Unleash the power of your board and explore how you can best use the collective wisdom of all those smart minds in the room. Don’t make them sit through one more staff report or approve one more budget until you think about why you’re asking them to do it. What is the value added? What magic could they envison if given the time?