Boards need more than rubber stamps

Rubber-stamp mark reading "Approved"Is your nonprofit board rubber-stamping the executive director’s decisions without really scrutinizing them? If the answer is yes, you may not be serving your organization’s best interest.

Board members must take a hard look at themselves and the responsibilities they must assume in the long-term interest of the organization. They have to know whether they’re providing the right amount of necessary oversight, or if they are simply rubberstamping the decisions of the leader who may also be a longtime friend.

In fact, one of the most common causes of a board’s failure to exercise the necessary oversight is simply a too-cozy relationship between the board and the leader.  While a good working relationship between board and nonprofit leader is essential, if it gets so chummy that it causes the board to shirk its responsibilities, then it could mean trouble for the nonprofit.

In our new book, When Leaders Leave: A New Perspective on Leadership Change, we highlight the possible causes and effects of these kinds of difficulties in leadership, and what can be done to right the ship. In a chapter titled “Help the leader find his or her way,” we spotlight how a robust relationship between board and chief executive includes regular check-ins about the direction of the organization and the leader’s legacy.

Too many nonprofit boards reserve these conversations for performance-review time. Check-ins with the chief executive really should be more regular than that. Keeping the lines of communication open increase the chances of the tougher conversations coming up, like the leader’s future plans with and after his or her tenure at the helm of the organization.

When longtime leaders stock the board with friends and allies whose allegiance is to that leader, and not necessarily the organization, the organization may not get the constructive and critical guidance it needs from its board.

One part of providing responsible board stewardship is initiating the difficult conversations, even those about leadership transition planning, before the organization is caught off-guard by business storms or a sudden departure.