Editorial: Board governance: Jobs for jerks

Andru McCracken, Editor

by ANDRU MCCRACKEN, EDITOR

I almost didn’t write this editorial because I realize it will have so little appeal. It’s a mean little piece on the importance of following rules. If highway speeds are any indication, we’re not really rule people. So here’s an unpopular take on an unpopular subject.

What sort of jerk would give a bunch of volunteer directors of a non-profit society a hard time? Who questions the actions of someone, likely a friend, who is beavering away for the good of their community for little recognition and zero pay?

That jerk is called a director.

Not only is what I am going to say not nice, it’s a subject that simply bores most people to death. And it shouldn’t it? Most people would never be hoodwinked into joining a volunteer board of directors in the first place. But what the hell, here are some tips for the easily duped.

As a director, you need to:

Campaign and vote for a chair who will let good discussion lead the way.

Hold each other accountable by creating and sustaining a there’s-no-stupid-question policy. Make sure that everyone has a chance to voice their opinions.

Treat society money and grant money like it’s your own (assuming you use your own money wisely). Use it for the clear purpose it was intended. Can’t spend it? Return it with a smile and do better next time.

Make sure your board is getting new blood. A successful board doesn’t have the same directors for 20 years, because it becomes myopic, clubby and dysfunctional. Besides, people need a break!

Stay on track. Make sure you are aiming for your vision. If your vision doesn’t make sense any more, get everyone together and change it. If your society no longer has a job to do, release your directors back into the wild. Your community will be richer for it.

Get good advice from professionals at the first indication you are in over your head. This is an awful pill to swallow, because directors are typically so cheap (they ought to be, as money is hard to raise). But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Be willing to press issues when it comes to breach of trust and conflict of interest. It will get hairy and friends will be lost, but this isn’t a tea party, it’s a society that you have all decided to serve. So get tough and press hard.

Be willing to give up some of the things you love to do in order to steer clear from a conflict of interest. If you have a conflict of interest that you are unwilling to address, then leave.

I’ve sat on many many boards. Good ones, bad ones, barely functioning ones. There’s no worse feeling than to realize that you are there just to fill a seat, ‘represent’ a region or demographic and make quorum, and that the board and its leadership aren’t interested in your concerns. However, that’s not the time to give up, it’s the time to dig in, even if you lose a few friends. That’s when being a diligent director can seem a bit like being a jerk.