Do You Really Need Your Board?


In my 15 years of working with non-profit organizations, I’ve heard my share of the good, the bad, and the ugly about boards.  

Last year, at a major industry conference, we asked our audience of more than 200 board members, directors, and senior leaders, ‘What are some of the major challenges of a board?’ The anonymous responses were startling. Words like ego, entitlement, arrogance and micromanagement were repeated again and again. Descriptors like unknowledgeable, aloof, and close-minded were shared.

Whoa! Is this really what we think of these volunteers? And it got me to wondering, “Does your zoo or aquarium really need its board?”

On the “no” side, I’ve heard many Executive Directors and non-profit Presidents complain about the amount of time they spend cajoling, pacifying, energizing, or chasing down board members. In several surveys on board performance, many leaders gave their boards less than stellar grades, particularly when it came to fundraising, but also on issues as varied as engagement and governance. 

Two-thirds (65 percent) do not believe that the directors on their board are very experienced, based on the number of additional boards they serve on. Almost half (48 percent) do not believe that their fellow board members are very engaged in their work, based on the time they dedicate to their organization and their reliability in fulfilling their obligations. (1)

If they’re not worthy of a passing grade, do we really need them?

The answer is yes, but…

Managing a board takes work, and sometimes a lot of it. But when it’s done right, a board can work miracles for you and your organization. 

On the flip side, many board members struggle to understand their roles or whether or not they are needed, often wondering if their time is well spent. 

Successful boards require a healthy partnership between staff leadership and board volunteers. A board/staff relationship is symbiotic. Despite what many think, the board can’t do all of the giving. Boards are not ATMs, nor is the staff simply there to do the board’s bidding.  Information, respect, understanding, appreciation, time, and leadership need to flow in both directions. 

Want to hit the reset button on your relationship with your board? If you’re a board member (and as one myself, I feel your pain), how can we feel that our time and money are important and valued? 

Here are 10 straightforward tips for both Board and Leadership to get started: 

 For the Director -
  1. Get the right people around the table
  2. Appreciate them
  3. Listen
  4. Respect their time
  5. Keep them in the know
  6. Be passionate
  7. Value their expertise
  8. Engage them
  9. Play fair
  10. Be a leader
    For the Board -
  1. Know your place, i.e. stay out of the weeds
  2. Think big
  3. Follow the rules
  4. Show up
  5. Give
  6. Be in the know
  7. Respect their time
  8. Be passionate
  9. Know when to leave
  10. Be a leader

Managing board dynamics is an art, but it can be done. It takes time, patience, and a little finesse, but good boards can take you places you never thought possible. Imagine the power, resources, energy and new connections board members can bring to the table, and start building a board that makes sense for you.

#AZA2016 Conference Update

Zoo Advisors facilitated our 4th annual panel on Board issues and Board development at this year's conference. Here are a handful of additional tips from panelists Brian Davis (Maritime Norwalk Aquarium); Elizabeth Whealy (Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum of Natural History); Connie Morgan (GLAZA); and Rick Hills (San Diego Global Foundation) on what it takes to have a successful board. 

  • Focus on and share your mission
  • Spend time 1-on-1 with your Board
  • Take time to 'tend the garden' and at times the 'garden may need weeding'
  • Nice matters
  • Sometimes the Board needs to challenge the leader
  • Speak with one voice but treat members as individuals
  • Make sure everyone is listening enough

(1) Fall 2014, Stanford Graduate School of Business, in collaboration with BoardSource and GuideStar, survey of 924 directors of nonprofit organizations about the composition, structure, and practices of their boards.