A common complaint from nonprofit staff is that the board of directors is “micromanaging.” What exactly does that mean? Why do they micromanage? Whose fault is it? What can be done to help boards do the real work they are meant to do?
One might argue that everything a nonprofit does is the board’s business. However, that doesn’t mean the board must be involved in every operational detail or approve every decision that the chief executive makes. Where do you draw the line?
Boards micromanage for a variety of reasons. Some get involved in operational issues because members really don’t understand their role as board members. It’s a lot easier to have a “to-do list” of tasks than it is to dig into the strategic issues facing the nonprofit. Still others micromanage because they are worriers by nature. They simply want a lot of information to assuage their fears. Others micromanage because there is not a trusting relationship between the board and the chief executive.
Everyone shares responsibility for the relationship between the board and the CEO. Making sure that the board is well informed is a start. Chief executives can reassure the board by keeping them in the loop. Does the board receive a report every month from the CEO on how things are moving forward? Is the board aware of both good and bad news that the nonprofit has received? Does the board hear about program outcomes? Are there stories of success to reassure them that great work is taking place?
A useful board education exercise is to give board members a list of board and CEO responsibilities without assigning them to one or the other. Asking board members to discuss where the responsibility belongs can begin a healthy dialogue and help them to understand their roles. (RELATED: Nonprofit Board Vocabulary – Defining the Board Member Experience )
Board chairs can help by keeping discussion focused on the decisions that need to be made, not on the intricacies of how the nonprofit operates daily. When board members get “in the weeds” of operations, it’s up to other board members, especially the board president, to bring them back to the question at hand.
Sometimes there is a more serious question of whether the CEO has the confidence of the board. Lack of communication is often cited as a reason for not having confidence in how the CEO is leading the nonprofit. It can be a “red flag reason” for micromanagement by the board.
A CEO should never be surprised to learn that the board does not have confidence in him or her. Regular evaluation and feedback sessions with the board president should make the CEO aware of any deficiencies that need to be addressed. A frank discussion between the chief executive and the board president is a start.
Luckily, here are some simple things to do if you see the board moving toward over-involvement in operations.
For CEOs: Help board members understand their roles. Keep board members well informed. Make sure that the board has real work to do. Solicit monthly feedback form the board chair.
For board chairs: Make it clear to board members that the operations of the nonprofit are in the hands of a competent and confident CEO. Support the CEO by having regular feedback meetings in which you take constructive feedback as much as offer it. Furthermore, make board roles and responsibilities part of orientation for new board members.
Overall, it is in the best interest of everyone on the board to prioritize good communication and building a relationship of trust. It isn’t always easy to navigate the ups and downs of the nonprofit journey, but in the end, your mission will thank you.
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