"To err is human," and as we all ruefully know, nonprofit board members and executive directors are typically human. Here are some of the biggest mistakes we make:
1. Falling in love with the executive director and letting love diminish critical thinking: Even if you have the world's greatest CEO, that CEO will benefit from your bringing your scrutiny and thinking to the organization's work and to his or her performance. Being in love is great, but bring up the issue of getting the dishes done.
2. Neglecting the recruitment of strong replacement board members: Let's face it, recruiting new board members isn't the most fun part of board work. For a micro-burst of motivation, think about this: what cool person would you like to meet . . . that you can contact using board recruitment as the excuse? (see Blue Ribbon Nominating Committee for Your Board)
3. Lacking a personal vision for the organization and the cause: it's not enough to support the organization's vision for itself and its work; what is your personal vision? For instance, what do you want to see occur for children with disabilities? For the national parks? For poor families? For the politics of the Middle East? If you let your personal vision inform your work on the organization's board, you will be a more strategic board member, and you'll inspire yourself. Try thinking about your personal vision for just 2 minutes.
4. Limiting your attention to your organization: A McKinsey poll of Fortune 1000 corporate boards found that board members felt they had enough (even too much) information about their companies, but hardly any information about the industries in which their companies compete. As nonprofit board members, we need information about trends in Alzheimer's care, about business models used by other legal aid societies, about how other Friends of Libraries are raising money from individuals. Sometimes we have this because we are clients, nonprofit leaders in the same field, or constituents of the cause, but if we don't, we need to insist on getting it.
5. Paying the executive either too much or little. In other words, not attending to how CEO salary affects the organization's future. If you pay too much, you can keep a semi-competent person in the job forever. If you pay too little, you will have a hard time recruiting a successor. (How Much to Pay the Executive Director)
6. Getting seduced by perks of board membership: If someone is paid significantly for being on the board (rare in nonprofits but common in foundations), or gets great perks (such as expensive gifts, meeting movie stars, getting free access to an organization-owned mountain lodge), that person will be very, very reluctant to rock the board or to contradict the CEO. As one devious new CEO put it, "I'm going to shower them with free stuff and by the end of the year they'll be eating out of my hand."
Okay, now: what are the biggest mistakes that executive directors make with their boards?
A. Treading the line between ignoring the board and resenting it: CompassPoint's national study Daring to Lead found that about one-third of nonprofit executives leave their jobs because they were fired or forced out. Being disdainful of the board — which is so much fun over martinis at the executive director pub — doesn't serve your organization . . . and you can unexpectedly end up getting fired.
B. Telling the board only about successes: A common executive director complaint goes something like this: "They keep expecting me to pull a rabbit out of a hat!" And how did they come to expect magic? Because we CEOs only like to tell the board about a problem if we already have a solution figured out. So after we show them rabbit after rabbit, why are we surprised when they learn to expect us to produce one?
C. Not taking responsibility for the performance of the board: If the board is going great, that's great. If it's not going great, who should do something about it? Too many executives think, "The board is awful, but it's not my job to fix it." In fact (or unfortunately), the executive's job is to work on improving any under-performing part of the organization, including the board. Just as you wouldn't step in and do the job for an under-performing manager, you can't take over for the board. But you must ask yourself, "What am I going to do to improve this situation?" (Who's Responsible for the Board?)
D. Recruiting board members that work well with you, but would be a poor committee for hiring your successor: the most important (and neglected) part of succession planning is making sure that the board is comprised of people who will be good at hiring the next CEO. If, for instance, a homeless organization has all board members who are corporate professionals, they are at risk of hiring someone completely inappropriate — compared to a board that also had social service professionals and community leaders on the board. If you're an ED who thinks you might be leaving within the next six years: the people you are recruiting now will be on the hire committee when you leave. (Succession Planning for Nonprofits of All Sizes)
And of course, the ultimate mistake? Neglecting to forgive ourselves and others for mistakes, and then moving forward. At least until we can find some non-humans (and non-dogs) who never mess up.
Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado, and the CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits). She has made a lot of mistakes both as a board chair and as an executive director.