The Third Sector Report By Jeffrey Wilcox

Quandary In The Boardroom: The Role Of Professional Staff
Jeffrey Wilcox - The Third Sector Report

August 13th, 2013 – With all the pressing issues facing nonprofit organizations today, it’s remarkable what topics of conversation are still taking a prominent place in more than just a few boardrooms.

During an era of paralyzing government cutbacks, radically changing communities, and the unprecedented pressure on nonprofit organizations to fundraise, it’s astounding that one of the gnawing issues that still finds its way to center stage is the inclusion and roles of professional staff during nonprofit board meetings.

During the past two weeks alone, I have been asked my opinion about this perceived quandary by executives and boardmembers from four very different organizations, whose locations span from Southern California to the Yukon Territory.

If ever there was a wake-up call about the excessive amount of airtime this question is getting in the third sector, my experience tells me it’s about time to start answering more important calls.

The mere raising of the issue speaks volumes about the variety of viewpoints that exist about the culture of a community organization’s board and its regard for who some people would regard as the “help” and others would regard as the front-line subject experts.

The answer to the simple question, “Should staff be involved in board meetings?” actually is best approached by considering the answers to two others. The first is "How important is it to your organization to provide a career track and a succession planning environment for your employees?" Defined staff roles and equally defined board roles in the boardroom makes a visible statement about an organization's commitment to working within a framework that teaches the next generation of nonprofit leaders how to partner with the community and with its organizational policy makers to advance a mission.

Throughout my career, I’ve observed that first-time executives who consistently worked in organizations where staff were barred from board meetings, and treated as children to be seen and not heard, failed at good board relations. Their years of developing expertise and content knowledge wasn’t enough to prepare them for managing the power, politics and personalities that contribute to policy-making.

The second question is, “To what extent does your board use delegation to mobilize its policy development, implementation and evaluation efforts?”

A nonprofit board that doesn’t employ strong committees, work groups, task forces, and project teams that invite staff professionals and community people to sit at the same table and work towards a common end is shortchanging the mission statement by under-resourcing the organization. These mechanisms are also the natural spawning grounds for future boardmembers.

The cry for doing things differently in and around the boardroom is getting louder. Board size, for example, is on the decline in the U.S., with fewer people sitting in nonprofit boardrooms than ever before. The average board is now at 16 members, down from 19 members a decade ago.

Add to this mix the facts that regular board attendance now stands at 75 percent or less per boardmember and that over 30 percent of nonprofit execs admit to spending 11 or fewer hours per month on “board work.” Then try to make the argument that closing the doors to, and the mouths of, staff in the policy-making process is wise. This sums to a statement that sounds pretty much like, “We’re more concerned about protecting the power in a room than unleashing our collective power in a community.”

It’s time to stop asking, “Should staff attend or participate in board meetings?” It’s time to start asking, “How should our organization embrace all the people who comprise our organization to appropriately facilitate good governance, whether inside the boardroom or out?”

The answer to the latter question is more a call to define roles and run focused meetings rather than enforce artificial rules. The answer also makes a statement about a simple truth that sets the nonprofit sector apart from all others: It takes both paid and unpaid people working well in partnership to advance a community cause.

It really is time to make some new statements about boards, board meetings and the professional staff. The same old question has never proven to be the right one to be asking.

(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 jwilcox@thirdsectorcompany.com)