There is nothing more frustrating than having the deep desire to achieve a goal and realizing that there is no way you will attain it in the near future. Many people chose to work or volunteer for non-profits because they recognize that a glaring social issue needs to be addressed and they have the skillset to improve the situation. But what happens when your best intentions lead you to a metaphorical dead-end? What happens when your board is paralyzed and the executive director of the organization has their hands tied?
Board paralysis is a real thing – not just a figurative expression. Imagine attending meeting after meeting and missing quorum to vote on important decisions because outdated by-laws stipulate that the minimum number of members must be 10. What about chronic indecision because members didn’t receive an email or paper-copy of the relevant information to be diligently informed on matters they must vote on. In effect, these boards are unable to perform the duties they have ascribed to and the result is a stagnant organization at risk.
Executive directors rely on engaged members of the board to accomplish the mission they have dedicated their careers to. The relationship between these two roles are symbiotic and in the case of a paralyzed board, the leadership may inadvertently develop a case of Stockholm Syndrome. An ED might end up falling in love with a board that is holding them captive by their inaction, often making excuses for their zombie-like behavior. On the other hand, some EDs might abandon ship after feeling overly frustrated by their situation. High turn-over of key staff might be one symptom of board paralysis.
What to do when your hands are tied?
It is essential to identify the source of the paralysis first. This requires an honest conversation that is sometimes difficult because it means examining the motivations and competency of all players involved. Let’s face it, there are times in an organization’s life when decisions are made on cuff and a good-enough attitude is used to fill positions on the board. By taking the time to revamp a board’s operational strategy, organizations can set better limits to terms, quorum quotas, and other elements that give the necessary structure to a dynamic board. It is only evaluating the overall performance of a board that you recognize the parts that need pruning to encourage new growth. This audit process should be on the books at least every two years to enable the organization to have a clear path to success.
Personality plays a part in any group dynamic. There is often a formula that boards unwittingly develop, not unlike the great perfumers at Channel or Givenchy, that gives the signature scent of board. The problem with recruiting the familiar is that it limits the potential for the evolution of a board and the organization. Like an unpleasant back note, board members with their own agenda or those locked into an overly bureaucratic mindset, taint the efforts of others around the table. Weeding out those kinds of members is crucial if the board is to thrive and get off of life-support. By developing a recruitment strategy that includes clear guidelines that favor diversity, onboarding training, and mentorship, not-for-profit organizations will put the critical pieces in motion that will result in a proactive board of governors.
One of the most overlooked elements in board paralysis is communication and technology. How communication happens between staff and the board is essential in relaying the emergent and chronic needs of an organization. Opening the avenues for discussion through the use of a dedicated platform for boards provides the opportunity for members to become more engaged in the issues that matter. There are many different platforms out there that offer a multitude of options to not-for-profits. The government often offers grants to train staff in the use of technology that permit virtual operations among other skills. Making a financial investment in technology can reap many rewards for organizations including centralizing minutes, agendas, and amendments made to bylaws, and also facilitating more transparent discussions on concerns that affect the sector.
So if you are faced with a paralyzed board or get the gnawing feeling that your hands are tightly bound, reaching out for support is often the best option – when you’re facing the zombie apocalypse you don’t want to be affronting it alone. Phil can help strengthen your governance (without ruffling too many feathers) so you can get back to accomplishing your mission with the passion that got you involved in the not-for-profit sector in the first place.
More about Boards:
What we do:
Phil works with boards and individual board members to solve a wide range of challenges. We frequently help boards develop attainable goals, restructure funding models, improve communication with the organization’s executives, and plan for succession.