06 Apr We Need to Get Real About “Working Boards”
6 April 2021
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
I have been privileged to work with many different land conservation organizations since I started consulting full-time in 2009. Many of them have been run by so-called “Working Boards,” which means that they either do not have paid staff at all or that their paid staff serves only in a support role. Some have embraced this status with pride and have difficulty imagining anything ever being different.
Today, in the spirit of words mattering, I want to explore the possibility that the term “Working Board” may not actually be very helpful, and may be getting in the way of stuff we want to do.
Love to hear your thoughts.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that Working Board is how most organizations get started. Work to do, enthusiastic volunteers, no money or at best a shoestring budget, and somehow it all works.
And goodness knows, sometimes that is all that will ever be needed. I did some work way back when with an all-volunteer organization that managed a lakeshore property donated to them by someone who wanted it to remain available for all to enjoy. The group’s Board was made up entirely of lakeshore landowners who met every now and then to organize social gatherings and small volunteer events – mainly for other lakeshore landowners. They wanted help raising money to build a shelter with informational signage.
That’s it. They could arguably be around in some very similar configuration or another for decades.
But that’s not the normal story.
The normal story is that the passionate commitment and energy of the founders turns out to be difficult to replicate. Sure it can go along for a generation or two, accepting a land donation here, securing a grant there, restoring this or that acre, building a loyal membership of 150-300 or thereabouts.
And then stalling. New Board members become harder to find period, and forget about diversity. Fundraising gets more difficult (as if anyone actually wanted to do fundraising). And the burden of responsibility gets heavier and heavier. The culture that embraced “Working Board” gets tired and that becomes an important aspect of how the rest of the community sees the organization as well.
Is the getting stuck part inevitable?
Because the “Working” part gets prioritized over the “Board” part. Board members are not recruited because they have particular skills or even interest in actual Board work. They are recruited either as a way to secure volunteer labor or as a way to recognize it.
Meetings are used more so to communicate about projects and coordinate activities than to debate organizational policy or set strategic direction.
And that’s OK at first. It’s needed.
But as the organization grows, two things happen: the Board “positions” become increasingly specialized, and the time commitment involved becomes increasingly significant. Volunteers start doing more and more and enjoying it less and less. Some burn out and leave, others simply do the parts of the job that they want to do, or have time to do, and ignore the rest. No one pays attention to succession planning, until the incumbent actually leaves.
Perhaps at some point the Board agrees to hire an Executive Director. But if the new ED isn’t extraordinarily good, there can be misunderstandings and friction. Is the ED directing the “volunteers,” or working for them?
Complicating matters to some extent is the fact that part of the organizational culture at this point is often related to self-imposed frugality.
“Ninety-eight percent of your donations go to programs!”
“Look at how much we’re able to do with so little!”
I believe that the words themselves – Working Board – get in the way. Working Board as opposed to what? Governing Board? Fundraising Board? Don’t ALL Boards have to govern and raise money? For that matter, don’t all Board have to work?
I’d like to suggest a different way of looking at this.
Board “work” includes governance (policy, strategy, planning), management oversight, fiscal responsibility including fundraising, and self-replication. Let’s call everything else “Staff Work,” even if the people engaged in it are not being paid.
In this sense, differentiating between “staff work” and “Board work” is much more useful than differentiating between “staff work” and “volunteer work.”
Because Board work is important – in fact, too important in terms of organizational perpetuity to be cast aside while we determine meeting places and a rain plans. The Board needs time to test organizational alignment between mission, vision, policies, and plans. Time to come to consensus around a Strategic Plan for the next five years. Time to understand the finances, build capacity, raise money, and secure endowed funds sufficient to guarantee perpetual management and monitoring. Time to plan organized succession and self-replicate.
Board members can certainly fill “staff” roles. But when they are filling staff roles – doing the “Working” part – they are not acting in the capacity of Board members. The “Board” part remains undone.
And it’s also true that “staff” work can be done by volunteers who are NOT Board members.
Three things jump out for me when I consider this rebranding.
First, involving people who are not Board members in the work of the land trust – even paying them! – is not a failure. And it has some definite advantages – including being able to fire them if they aren’t doing a good job. If a person doing staff work leaves for any number of reasons, they could be replaced by a qualified volunteer, by a paid staff person, or by a consultant. This provides much more flexibility.
Organizations willing to pay staff are able to recruit from much farther away, giving them many more options and a much wider talent pool. Recruiting someone to do accounting work or communications and social media on a volunteer basis is much more limiting geographically.
Second, the Board work itself becomes more appropriately elevated – less likely to be confused or forgotten. Board work isn’t something that is “also done” when we have time, but rather something periodically called out as being important.
And third, fundraising becomes much more difficult to hide and/or dodge. If you’re on the Board and you agreed to the goals and strategies in the Strategic Plan, then you have no “out” when it comes to fiscal responsibility. All that other stuff is staff work. Fundraising is Board work.
Peter Drucker is credited as saying that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The term “Working Board” is part of our culture and my writing this won’t change that.
But this work is too important to let this part of our culture become a barrier to perpetuity. All the good work we’ve done becomes vulnerable when we find self-replication too onerous or fundraising too difficult.
We can’t afford to have Working Boards stop “working.”
Cheers, and Have a great week!
PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.
Photo by Jasmin777 courtesy of Pixabay.