Sunday, July 22, 2012

Board Wants vs. Organization Needs

DOES YOUR BOARD HAVE THE TENDENCY to solve the problems it wants to deal with, rather than the ones that exist?  

This question, written as a statement in Ben Davis' recent coverage of the LA Museum of Contemporary Art's flight of board members in the wake of staff change, accusations of the dumbing down of exhibitions, and financial tightrope walking, has haunted me since reading it.

Haunted me because I think that many boards (not just high-powered ones) pay far greater attention to symptoms than root problems, precisely because they're not as messy or as intellectually challenging.  And if you've got a board that minds the clock, root problems can rarely be tackled sufficiently in the space of a one or two-hour board meeting without considerable pre-meeting work.

If you've got a board chair who's fond of advancing personal interpretations of your organization's mission or has the boardroom equivalent of attention deficit syndrome, then it's every hand on deck to keep the entire group focused and operating at the big picture level.  Not an easy task; often not done well.

We routinely choose board members based on their personal interests and preferences and we reinforce that with committee assignments and activities, which can result in breeding distinct allegiances to particular programs and people.  Is it any wonder then, when solutions must be found to long-standing or seemingly intractable problems, few are willing to kill (metaphorically speaking) their sacred cows?

And what about our collective nonrprofit penchant for sugar-coating or downright ignoring poor performance and bad news.  Is it really that unfathomable that a nonprofit can't pay its bills, can't attract audience, can't deliver on mission?

Some boards can paper over symptoms with money, which without the attendant examination of policies, procedures and decision-making, is usually just a bandaid.  Less well-heeled boards may use other types of bandaids, such as furloughing staff, reducing hours of operation, amping up fundraising events, sliding into non-mission related programming.   

Could this, in part, explain why there seems to be a slow boil underway between CEO's and their boards?  

Image:  Spannung / tension from cool_colonia4711