In our line of work, there are amazing board members who make our lives easier. They look out for staff; remember their birthdays and send flowers; advocate for equitable policies like paid family leave and sabbaticals; and pick up the tabs at lunch and coffee.
And then there are board members whose unholy presence constantly threatens to open a gate for ancient god Cthulhu to enter this reality and cover the land in a thousand years of agony; who are so irritating and possibly destructive that you imagine a giant squid-faced being ravaging the world and you think “that might not be so bad.”
A while ago, a colleague and I, both haggard executive directors with involuntary eye twitches, were having lunch. Our conversation led us to our boards, and he told me of how his board chair scolded him for the egregious crime of forwarding a funding opportunity to another nonprofit. “He was mad that I helped our ‘competition’ by letting them know of a request for proposals from a foundation. I figured why wouldn’t we share RFPs with one another?”
Fast forward to now, several years and a pandemic later, and unfortunately, I still hear stories like this. Boards of directors are truly some of the biggest stressors in the sector, often more harmful than helpful, as I’ve written about here and here. But it’s partly because we’ve trained boards to think and act in certain ways, ways that over time help to entrench siloing, competitiveness, and survivalism.
Hi everyone, I had to go to the emergency room for severe pain in my right side, and found out I likely have kidney stones and it may take weeks for it to resolve. I’m on some pain medications. So this post may be slightly cranky and possibly filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Drink lots of water and cut back on sodium. Kidney stones are not fun; 3 out of 5 stars, would not recommend.
A while ago, I wrote about the Rule of One-Thirds when it comes to boards: One-third of boards are helpful, one-third are useless, and one-third are actually destructive to their missions. Of the two-thirds of boards that are useless or destructive, a lot of it can be blamed on the fact that the default board model we’ve been using is archaic and makes little sense. Let’s take a group of well-meaning people who see one percent of the work, who often have little to no nonprofit experience, and who many times don’t reflect the community being served, and give them vast power over the organization. (And while we’re at it, let’s have them conduct business through Robert’s Rules, a set of rules formalized literally 145 years ago, in 1876).
While our sector works to explore new governance models, we need to address other issues with boards, namely that many board members, and specifically board chairs, have warped perceptions of their importance, combined with delusions of wisdom. Board members’ egos can be one of the most aggravating things about working in this field. It is probably one of the biggest drivers of EDs/CEOs quitting their jobs to pursue a career in real estate.
Boards are groups of volunteers who give a lot of time, money, and skills to nonprofits, and should be appreciated. But like funders, you wield enormous power in our sector, which means no one is telling you the truth, and the truth is that many of you are causing a ton of damage. So, if you are a board member, and especially if you are a board chair or will assume this position, please check your egos and remind yourselves of these things:
Hi everyone, sorry this post is a day late (my laptop updated at the most inconvenient time last night and took hours). Before we get to this week’s topic, quick announcement. BEER, which stands for Beverage to Enhance Equity in Relationships, took a break last year, but is now back on this year. It is a time for foundation staff and trustees and nonprofit staff and board members to get together in their cities and just hang out and see one another as human beings. It usually happens around the Summer Solstice, so this year it’ll be around June 17th or 18th. Of course, grabbing some fries or ice cream together preferably outdoor or virtually is by no means a substitute for meaningful change in philanthropy, but it’s a start.
However, we’re changing the name to be more thoughtful to colleagues who are in recovery or who don’t drink for religious or other reasons. The finalists so far are “Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy (PEEP),” “Beverage to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy (BEEP),” “Party to Enhance Equity in Relationships (PEER),” or “Power-Equalizing and Equity in Relationships (PEER).” Please go here to vote on it. I’m serious! It’ll take you literally 20 seconds. Feel free to suggest other names. I’ll announce the new name next week!
One of the questions I get asked most often when I give presentations is “Vu, have you tried tea-tree oil for your acne?” But also just as frequently asked is “What advice do you have for my organization as we try to diversify our board, staff, etc.?” For years people have been asking how to diversify their orgs. This is discouraging. We’ve had endless DEI workshops, various “white papers” and articles, and at least one puppet show. What the heck is going on? Why do we suck so much at diversifying?
A few years ago, I led a Vietnamese-community-focused nonprofit as a youthful executive director filled with equal parts optimism and adult acne. I remember though one time at a board meeting trying to get board members to donate. “Please,” I said, “just give something. Anything! Even $5! I just need us to be able to tell funders that we have 100% board giving!” The elders stared back blankly at me. I was desperate. “OK,” I said, “how about I give you each $10, then you donate $5 back, and you make a profit of $5!” I was joking, but also kind of not.
The idea of “100% board giving” is one of those concepts that somehow have become entrenched in our sector, an unwritten truth that we don’t question. To this day, I still see funders asking about it on grant applications. Fundraisers, meanwhile, whisper warnings to one another: “There was one organization that only achieved 50% board giving. Their donations eventually all dried up. If you walk by the office, you can hear faint ghostly echoes of weeping from the development team.”