Reducing board micro-management

27 Feb

For those of you who’ve ever experienced micro-management by a board (on either side of the table), here’s a potentially helpful document I wrote. It’s designed to help nonprofit organizations reduce unnecessary board intrusion, concurrently while helping the ED and staff serve the board and provide them what they need to do their strategic work.


See, I’ve served on two boards of late. And, educational experiences they have both been! I’ve learned through some rather twisted and uncomfortable ways about the roles of the executive committee, the board president, the committees, the executive director (ED) and the staff. I have not always been the easiest of board members to have around. I want information. I find it impossible to do my job of providing, among other things, strategic direction to an organization about which I know little.

In my frustration, I became a whirlwind of data requests. I had culture clashes with the staff and ED about what information I had a right to see. Me? I think Google Analytics are relevant when one is the Communications Committee chair.  And HTML newsletter open rates and clicks on links. Because I wasn’t receiving the information I felt I needed to do my job as a board member, and as my requests for information were often perceived of as stepping on staff and ED toes, the I-want-you-can’t-have push-pull became even more pronounced.

Now, EDs have to protect their staff from excessive board requests and ensure that mission critical operations continue. And usually, producing reports and providing information takes staff time that can impact the staff’s ability to do its work. So, what’s a sane organization to do? Well, I think the first thing is that people have to know is what they’re asking for and why … what purpose does the getting of the information provide? And what’s it worth? Is the information sought a $25 answer (a quick email sent), a $250 answer (perhaps a meeting with a few staff and follow up), or is it a $2,500 answer … perhaps a more extensive report? Board members should be able to ask a reasonable question of staff and get a reasonable answer. Equally, even without a master of science in management, board members need to understand “the cost” of their questions asked.

So, what’s a sane organization to do?

In my consulting work over the years (and in personal relationships), I see that it is my responsibility to ask for what I want and to make sure that I’m clear about what it is that I need as an answer/deliverable/date. My suspicion is that board member requests of staff would half and ED/staff resistance would subside tremendously if there were systems in place that required (forced) board members to be more thoughtful in what it is they need, and why.

So, I created a form, a document, a think-your-way-through-your-thought-process guide. I make no claim of perfection in this regard. I have yet to test and vet this form. I am, however, offering it for nonprofit boards, EDs and staff as a potentially helpful tool for navigating the sometimes-messy territory of board-staff relationships. (And for those of you who’ve got your thinking caps on but don’t serve on nonprofit boards at this moment in time, you’ll be able to see the business applications for such a form.)


2 Responses to “Reducing board micro-management”

  1. ServeHoCo February 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    Yours is the second blog post I’ve read today mentioning HoCo’s nonprofit sector. As someone who had the opportunity to work within that very community recently, and within the state’s broader nonprofit community for much longer, your header hits the nail on the head. By either micro-managing, or not managing at all, I have observed too many nonprofits who are doing tremendous work in our community, but with board members who either don’t know how to do their jobs well, are on their board for the wrong reason, or are doing more harm than good. I too, observed first hand a local nonprofit board many of whom’s members were missing the mark on fulfilling their legal obligations as board members (

    I applaud your efforts to ask the right questions in your experience as a nonprofit board member, and to post/share this document you created. However, your post also addresses a topic that is perhaps a much bigger issue within HoCo’s nonprofit community – the fact that those serving on Howard County boards and providing resources to Howard County’s nonprofits see the county’s geographic limits as the be all end all of resources to help them govern. Why create a new document like this when there are national and statewide organizations that already have similar resources? Why are county based nonprofits scrutinized if they attend trainings or utlize resources that fall outside of county lines? Why does our own county government feel the need to create a “Nonprofit Resource Development Council” (while in our current economy no doubt), when ample resources for nonprofits on financial management, HR, board governance, etc. are available from organizations like MANO, BoardSource, etc.?

    The fact that entities like ACS and NRDC exists to serve our county’s nonprofit sector, and yet seem to routinely underutilize statewide and national resources and best practices for nonprofits is truly a shame. Sure, Howard County’s uniqueness is part of what makes it great – but a wake up call is needed – there are many vibrant, smart, and unique nonprofit organizations thriving outside of Howard County. Perhaps it’s time to look outside ourselves for the greater good (the people who benefit from the great works of our county’s nonprofit organizations).

    • Anne Towne March 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

      ACS and the NRDC are proud to collaborate with Maryland Nonprofits, consultants from around the regions, and have brought together national organizations to help build resiliency of nonprofits in Howard County. ACS spends a great deal of time looking for best practices to enhance its education and training programs and the further the technical knowledge of the groups it is proud to convene – First Fridays, Gavel Group, and Full Spectrum Housing Coalition among them. We also believe strongly in bringing forward the strengths our own providers have – and are always in awe of how our nonprofit community supports itself by sharing its successes and failures.

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