The Board’s Proactive Role in Staying off the Front Page

At the Bayer Center, when a string of media stories about executive leadership and governance issues in area nonprofit organizations forms a trend, we take notice.  Several recent instances have in common problems in the relationships between boards of directors and executives and between executives and employees.  Through board training, board matching and in-depth board and HR consulting, we have worked with many organizations to ensure that management and governance function as well as possible. Good governance requires fiduciary responsibility, overseeing strategic direction and attracting others to the cause.  The board’s responsibility in governance also extends to stewarding resources by being an effective employer.

On most every nonprofit organizational chart, the staff reports to the chief executive, and the chief executive reports to the board.  When conflicts occur between staff and the chief executive, how does a responsible board of directors contribute to a respectful conclusion that serves the overall effectiveness and sustainability of the organization?  This question matters deeply when there is a personnel issue with one employee.  It matters much more when – as has increasingly happened – there are mass issues between employees as a group and the chief executive.

Our 74% Project about the lives of women in the nonprofit workforce has focused our attention on how organizations can improve our stewardship of a vital resource: our people.  It’s far better to govern and manage proactively in calm waters than to manage a crisis while going over a waterfall.  A few tactics can help.

  • Make sure that your board has a healthy and functional personnel committee. This group can review policies and procedures to proactively address HR matters and ensure that employees are being treated fairly, compensated appropriately and have opportunities to deepen their skills and effectiveness. In some cases, the board’s executive committee handles personnel matters.
  • Keep the division between board and staff roles clear by having any employees (including top executives) serve only as ex officio, non-voting board members. We’ve seen this standard practice abandoned in some cases, and blurring the line between staff and board responsibilities creates confusion for all parties.
  • Although only the chief executive typically reports to the board, having other employees work with board committees can keep lines of communication open. It’s healthy for board members to hear from employees other than the chief executive.  For instance, a development employee can contribute administratively and strategically to the functioning of a board development committee.  Direct working relationships – within appropriate boundaries and in the context of the employees’ reporting relationships within the org chart – can allow staff and board to work productively together in function-specific matters.  They can also provide early warnings if executive-staff conflicts form a pattern.

In addition, here are seven key questions responsible board members can ask when evaluating their organizations’ human resource practices.