The Third Sector Report By Jeffrey Wilcox
April 9th, 2013 – One of the most dreaded situations a nonprofit organization can face is called, “boardmember burnout.” Its symptoms are easy to identify and once a boardmember starts showing its signs, the syndrome can spread throughout an organization faster than a bad outbreak of the flu.
At a time when more people are juggling the demands of their careers, families and commutes, asking a small battalion of volunteers to continually come in, weigh in, buy in, pitch in and chip in inevitably leads to a feeling of being done in.
The first sign of burnout is an eroding enthusiasm to participate; and, if something isn’t done at that point, it can lead to the erosion of a person’s enthusiasm not only for the cause itself, but also for serving on other boards. Burned-out boardmembers are a commodity the nonprofit sector can’t afford to have in large numbers if the sector expects to perpetuate a continuity of community leadership for its future.
Preventing boardmember burnout isn’t a simple matter. It’s not about making sure someone gets a birthday card. It’s also not about putting an additional event on the calendar called, “The Board Social.” These gestures of support are essential, but acts of kindness, alone, don’t reverse the malignant nature of burnout.
Having watched countless numbers of good-hearted and well-intentioned people lose their enthusiasm for board participation, I’ve learned that their burnout is really the culmination of a set of recurring reactions to the way in which things get done in the organization. Or, stated more clearly: The board’s culture. At some point, the burned-out boardmember concludes that he or she “doesn’t fit in,” and either loudly declares, “This isn’t what I signed up for,” or politely signs off with, “I simply don’t have the time.”
There’s good reason why the expression, “working smarter not harder,” has been around for a while. But, when finding nonprofit board-members is difficult, funding pressures are mounting, and a certain way of doing things has set in, the expression is much easier said than done.
Working smart means a board takes the time to figure what is needed for the board to do its best work. When a board maps out what good governance looks like; it can then create an infrastructure that empowers people to feed the governance pipeline with diverse input, vetted ideas, appropriate due diligence, resourcing suggestions and legitimate policy recommendations. Boards that work hard view all these activities as being on the plates of their own members.
The quickest way to see if a board is choosing smart work over hard work is to evaluate its sub-committees. Without active committees of diverse people generating ideas, weighing options against fact and opinion, orchestrating projects and strategies, and performing due diligence, a board, by default, becomes the committees that it doesn’t have. Burnout occurs when boards neither value nor practice delegation.
Another test is to observe how the board regards its professional staff. Little respect for professional recommendations, judgment and expertise breeds a board that more closely resembles a panel of management consultants. Burnout occurs when boards prefer throwing their members into the minutia of management over posturing for progress.
A third indicator is whether a board’s success is primarily driven by a set of team goals or by a set of individual goals that are uniform to every individual. Burnout occurs when boardmembers have difficulty meeting multiple standards regarding their worth and value that ultimately results in a pass/fail grade.
The results of these tests provide clear insights about a board’s culture. More importantly, the results invite the most important question a board can ask if it truly cares about preventing burnout amongst its members: Is most of our board activity aimed at empowering people or controlling them? Burnout shouldn’t come as a surprise if a small group of people are attempting to govern, manage and supervise all at the same time. It’s also no surprise that this kind of culture burns out other people in addition to boardmembers.
Boardmember burnout is a warning sign that the culture needs immediate and decisive attention. The first step towards working smarter is understanding that simple fact.
(Jeffrey R. Wilcox, CFRE, is president and chief executive officer of The Third Sector Company, Inc. Join in on the conversation about this article on Facebook or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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