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Beyond the Kitchen Table: The Board’s Evolving Role

January 22, 2015

Many organizations begin as "kitchen table" groups: a bunch of neighbors sitting around somebody's kitchen, trying to solve a common problem or meet a community need. These folks share a passion for the cause and a willingness to roll up their sleeves and do the work.

They're seldom skilled in nonprofit governance, and, frankly, they don't even think about that stuff. They just want to fix what needs to be fixed.

Sometimes these informal groups continue for years or decades without growing or changing significantly, and their familiar leadership structure continues to serve them well. For example, I belong to an all-volunteer organization that has had no staff for most of the past seventy-five years – and yet the work gets done.

Taking "The Leap"

In other cases, these groups want to expand their impact, so they decide to hire employees and open an office. My colleagues at the Institute for Conservation Leadership call this stage "the leap," and it's filled with peril. Organizations hiring staff for the first time must address issues such as:

  • Now that we have an employee(s), how does our role as a board change?
  • How do we provide supervision without micro-managing?
  • How will we ensure that our staff has adequate resources to do the job well?
  • How do we evaluate our programs, our staff, and each other?

At this stage, other problems may surface. Board members who originally got involved with the organization because they care about the issue or cause are suddenly responsible for personnel policies, staff supervision, a more detailed level of planning, and greater responsibility for fundraising.

Illus_board_schematic
"Four Stages of Organizational Development" adapted, with permission, from the Institute for Conservation Leadership.

The visionary leader(s) who founded the organization may be unwilling to share power with the staff, which can lead to conflict, confusion about roles, and employee turnover. Or maybe the board breathes a collective sigh of relief, backs away, and abandons its responsibilities, assuming the employee(s) will do everything.

As you can see, the skills needed to start a group are not the same ones needed to take it to the next level of effectiveness.

The Sweet Spot: Moving to Shared Governance

As a nonprofit continues to grow, expand its programs, and hires more staff, the board's role continues to change. Because organizations become more complex, board governance also becomes more complicated.

In the next phase, sometimes called "shared governance," board and staff share power and responsibility, are clear about their respective roles, and have systems in place to create orderly transitions as people leave and new ones come in.

At this stage, the board has explicit written agreements that define what is expected of each trustee and what he or she can expect in return. These groups have a culture of accountability and mutual respect; they also have fun together and celebrate their shared accomplishments.

Clearly, board requirements and behavior must evolve as organizations develop and change. The board you need when starting something is not necessarily the same board you'll need to grow it to maturity.

So if somebody tries to convince you there is only one correct model of board governance, beware! No single "right way" will be relevant to all nonprofits, or even to a specific organization at different stages in its life.

Headshot_andy_robinsonTo learn more about how to develop and maintain an effective board at every stage of your organization’s life cycle, join me on Thursday, January 29, from 1:00-2:00 p.m. for the Foundation Center webinar Building a Board That Works. I'll share tips for recruiting the right mix of board members for your nonprofit, ensuring that they fundraise successfully, and keeping them motivated and accountable.

Andy Robinson, a consultant and trainer based in Vermont, is the author of six books, including Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money. This post originally appeared on the Philanthropy Front and Center-New York blog and is adapted from Great Boards for Small Groups (Medfield, MA: Emerson & Church).

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