The Grit of Nonprofit Boards: Strategy, Governance, and Impact
In my last article, I opened an informal series on the work of a nonprofit board. (see here). In that article, I outlined three deficiencies of boards. In this article, I want to “flip that script” and talk about high-performing boards. I come back to this topic again and again because an effective board is essential to the success of a nonprofit. (see here, here, and here). This article was inspired by a recent positive experience with a highly effective board (not my client). This board demonstrates grit, which I believe is one of the most critical ingredients for a nonprofit board.
Okay, you all know about Angela Duckworth’s Ted Talk on Grit. You know, the one where she defines grit as a passion and perseverance for long-term and meaningful goals. She also wrote a book on the topic (see here). But I believe that for a nonprofit board, grit must show up in three places, strategy, governance, and impact.
Strategy Grit – Recently, an article appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy titled Strategic Planning Sucks the Life out of Nonprofits. And while the author clarified her assertion when challenged (see here), the original article stands as an indictment of how little grit for strategy exists in many nonprofits (and consultants). Strategic Planning is not life-sucking. A strategy is a heart that pumps oxygenated blood throughout the organization. Strategic planning is about business acumen and not cheerleading. Strategic planning is about assessing alternative ways of closing the gap between your present today and a sustainable tomorrow in ways that make an increasingly significant community impact. It is grounded in your nonprofit developmental stage, builds and expands core competencies, reimagines partnerships, revenue models, and leadership structure.
Strategic grit is hands-on and gets dirt under your fingernails. Sometimes strategic planning will include courageous decisions of getting smaller, merging, or closing or at the other end, expanding (deeper, wider, or longer), aggressively acquiring competitors, and demonstrating national leadership. Strategy is the courage to act rather than a feelgood process but is about grit. It requires both a passion and perseverance for the long-term and meaningful goals of the agency.
Governance Grit – Just this week, another local nonprofit, here in Portland, Oregon, ended up on the front page of the local paper with allegations of misconduct and self-dealing (see here). Unfortunately, it was the second time in as many years that the organization has come under fire for inadequate controls and self-dealing. It is easy to dismiss this as a tiny nonprofit struggling to exist beyond their means. Reality is, however, that too many nonprofit board members don’t understand their role in governance or what clear and consistent internal controls look like.
Governance grit is the core duty of a nonprofit board member. “Showing up” is often the bar that too many nonprofits set for board members. Board chairs and executive directors that are satisfied when there are enough butts in chairs to meet a quorum, don’t understand the grit of governance. Board members must not only show up but ask hard questions, understand how the organization works, provide meaningful engagement to making the agency’s policies and procedures stronger. The grit of governance is not micromanagement. Every board member needs to understand how the internal controls of finances work in the nonprofit, ask hard questions, routinely talk about risk management, check-in on human resource legal compliance, and understand, at a nuanced detail-level, the financial reports reviewed at board meetings.
Impact Grit – The third element of grit that a nonprofit board needs to demonstrate is a myopic focus on impact. Impact implies that the nonprofit board is not merely concerned about “business as usual,” but is striving to improve, deepen, and widen its delivery of programs and services. At times, driving towards impact will be improving the quality or the efficiency of programs and services. At times it will be expanding service areas. The grit of impact might include making capital improvements in technology or staff compensation.
But the grit of impact starts within the board. It goes beyond showing up and investing personal resources in the organization’s success. The grit of a board impact includes building the skills of the board, setting board performance metrics and measuring progress, intentionally cultivating leaders, planning for succession, and always engaging in deep reflection on how well the board is supporting the success of the organization.
Mediocrity is no longer an acceptable position for boards. Strategy. Governance. Impact. Grit. Ask yourself if “business as usual” is the midpoint, where your does your nonprofit board fall on the spectrum across these three domains? If you are sitting right or left of the midpoint, it is time to get your hands dirty. Nonprofit boards are on the hook for the success or failure of the organization. Period. In our profoundly polarized economy, nonprofit organizations are often one of the last institutions standing in the gap, trying to hold together our fraying social contract. With that in mind, there is no choice but to invest in building a high-performing board.
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