Friday, September 3, 2010

Those Fish Aren't Dead, They're Just Tired

This post from David Simms of the Bridgespan Group on the Harvard Business Review Blog got me thinking. In it, Simms bemoans the state of many nonprofit Boards, describing them as "aquariums of dead fish"--unengaged and unproductive. Here's one of his key observations:
What some board members tell me, when pushed, is that they tolerate things on a nonprofit board that they wouldn't stand for in their day jobs. The boards don't ensure that the organization has a sound strategy, they tolerate mediocrity in management, they don't hold the organization accountable for results, and they don't ensure that resources are adequate to accomplish goals.
I've seen this in my own experience--individual board members who demand excellence in their own organizations and in their own careers, but who don't insist on the same high standards for the association they have accepted governance responsibility for.
Why is this? One reason could be that the "fish" aren't dead, they're just tired.
Individuals who are driven to succeed in business or in their own careers generally have a lot of energy, which they need because success is hard. It takes focus, commitment, and endurance to be the best you can be at something. Association success is no different, except that it may be even harder than individual success, because the objectives are bigger, the stakeholders are more varied, and the politics are more complicated. New Board members may come into the situation intending to drive greater success, and even be ready to swim upstream, but step away after realizing the amount of personal time and energy real change will require.
How many times have you seen this happen? An association board says do X, and the executive director responds with, okay, that will require Y, with Y being some combination of staff time, money, and board member engagement. Staff time is never a problem from a board's point of view, and there's usually a solution laying around somewhere when it comes to money. But board member engagement? That's one of the most valuable resources an association has, and it is in very limited supply. If a project requires too much of it, even if it's something the board believes in, odds are the project is not going to succeed.
One of the essential responsibilities of a board is to ensure that the association has adequate resources to accomplish its goals. Board member involvement is one of those resources, but how many boards talk openly about how much of this resource there is and how it should best be applied? If you deal with this subject frankly, you may give some of those dead fish a reason to start swimming again.


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