Are your board and staff engaged in a never-ending game of tug of war?

Do you feel that there is such a strong disconnect between your board and staff that you might as well be operating in different orbits?

Are you actively seeking ways to engage your leadership that produce measurable and meaningful impact?

Here at Funding for Good, we understand that nonprofit cultures are often dysfunctional, and a shared passion for the mission is not enough to keep leaders on the same page. 

Whether you are a governing board member or paid staff, today’s topic is designed to offer actionable tips to get the board and staff on the same page.

Before you can “plan for positive change,” it is essential to acknowledge a few realities within the nonprofit sector.

5 Notable Realities of the Nonprofit Sector

1) Nonprofits are businesses – Just because an organization is “purpose-driven” and enjoys tax-exempt status, it does not mean leadership can ignore basic business principles. Founders, boards, and even staff tend to run the organization as a “club” or “project” instead of a viable business. Just as a for-profit board and CEO spearhead their business, a nonprofit’s leadership is responsible for goal setting, planning, ensuring deliverables, and managing resources. Neglecting the governance and management side of the “business” impedes the organization’s ability to operate at maximum capacity and fulfill its mission.

2) Roles and responsibilities are often unclear – Leadership can get confusing as organizations grow and evolve. Board roles and responsibilities differ depending on the organization’s stage of development. (Charter board vs. working board vs. governing board.) Expectations placed on the Executive Director often change based on board dynamics, finances, and staff skillsets. Unfortunately, nonprofit culture tends to celebrate leaders who “wear a million different hats,” which often leads to confusion, conflict, and burnout. The frequency of leadership transitions also contributes to unclear roles and responsibilities.

3) Passion and availability tend to trump qualifications – A nonprofit organization is only as strong as its leadership. The “under-qualified, under-engaged board” alongside the “over-worked, underpaid Executive Director” model is sadly a norm within the sector. Nonprofits report that filling empty seats with qualified and committed leaders is one of their most significant challenges. In response, many settle for “passionate and/or available” leaders” regardless of qualifications that directly impact the organization’s stability.

4) Accountability can become a mythical moving target – Nearly 73% of public charity Chief Executives (aka “Executive Director” ED) report that they are working without an employment contract (BoardSource 2021 Index of Nonprofit Board Practices). 

The board’s job is to create a job description for the ED, establish goals, evaluate performance, and confirm competitive compensation. The latter tasks become virtually impossible when ED’s are operating without realistic job descriptions and professional agreements. Countless studies over the past decade indicate that more than half of nonprofit board members are “inactive.” When boards fail to hold their members and the ED accountable, it becomes difficult to gain the trust and respect of the community they serve.

5) Strategic planning is not a top priority – Only 50% of nonprofits report that they have a written strategic plan even though studies indicate a well-crafted strategic plan can DOUBLE the chances for success. 

Additionally, studies reveal that nearly 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first ten years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Reactive vs. proactive leadership contributes to harmful norms such as operating in “crisis mode, survival mode, or confusion mode.” 

How can nonprofit leaders break dysfunctional trends and get our board and staff on the same page?

There is no “one magic thing” an organization can do to create a high-functioning leadership team. However, the board and staff can take a series of intentional steps to create clarity, foster unity, and develop a high-performance board.

3 Ways to Get the Board and Staff on the Same Page

1) Get back to the basics – Whether your organization is in its infant stage or reaching maturity, leadership must allocate time to “assess the foundation.”  Any time a home is built, undergoes a major renovation, or is sold, an inspection is required. Even if a house was constructed on a solid foundation, it does guarantee that the foundation has not become compromised over the years. 

The same concept holds true for organizations that have weathered changes within the community, leadership, and resources. When assessing the organization’s foundation, leadership might consider:

A) Legal compliance- Are articles of incorporation and bylaws aligned? Is leadership governing and managing the organization according to all approved policies and procedures? Are all policies current and relevant?

B) Vision- By their very nature, nonprofits are purpose-driven. A well-crafted vision statement explains “WHY” the organization exists. Over time and transitions, the vision can get lost or muddled. An intentional visioning session with the board and staff allows the team to revisit the organization’s foundation, achieve consensus around the organization’s direction, and craft a core message that resonates “here and now.” It might be time for a visioning session if any of the following are true:

              • The organization has not approved a formal vision statement
              • Very few of the board or staff members can quote verbatim the vision statement
              • The vision is not clear (You have to repeat it to understand it)
              • The vision is not concise (It is too wordy)
              •  The vision is not compelling (It doesn’t inspire people to say “tell me more!”)

C) Mission- A well-crafted mission statement should clearly describe HOW you achieve your vision. While vision statements inspire, mission statements should inform your audience about WHAT the organization does in the present. As organizations evolve, a regular review of the mission statement ensures leadership stays on the same page.

 2) Prioritize leadership development – It’s no secret that an organization is only as strong as its leadership. Refuse to allow leadership development to become an afterthought. Organizations must have consistent processes to determine the following:

              • What are skills and expertise our organization needs to achieve goals and overcome challenges?
              • How will we identify and recruit qualified leadership prospects?
              • What are the current job descriptions and expectations associated with each leadership role?
              • What systems do we have in place to ensure accountability?

Finally, it is essential to consider how well leadership understands the community they serve. While some leaders might be from the grassroots community, others might possess all the skill sets but lack connection. 

Nonprofit boards are overwhelmingly disconnected from the community they serve. 51% report that they do not have the right board members to establish trust within the communities they serve.”

Only 1/3 of boards (32%) place a high priority on “knowledge of the community served” and even fewer, 28% place priority on membership within the community served.” (BoardSource 2020 Index of Nonprofit Board Practices)

Rather than limit leadership opportunities to a “local pool” of prospects, it is helpful to consider innovative ways the organization can connect leaders with the community before nomination, during onboarding processes, and throughout leadership terms.

3) Commit strategic planning and thinking – There is no better way to get the board and staff on the same team than to engage decision-makers in a well-organized strategic planning process. The best strategic planning processes do not limit conversations to “black and white performance goals” but rather walk the team through a series of intentional conversations designed to achieve the following:

              • Clarify current realities by establishing where the organization is NOW.
              • Brainstorm and achieve consensus around the short-term vision (for example, a plan might focus on “the next 3-5 years”)
              • Define what success will look like by establishing measurable goals and objectives 
              • Prioritize achievements by confirming timelines/benchmarks
              • Assign strategic accomplishments to the proper team member/committee to ensure ongoing accountability
              • Establish action and implementation steps to ensure forward momentum

A strategic plan is limited if the process fails to engage the right people, confirm consensus, and establish ways to keep the plan current and relevant. 

Written plans should serve as “live documents,” which means leadership must think strategically and adapt accordingly.

Ultimately, getting the board and staff on the same requires ongoing commitment, planning, and communication. A well-qualified and unified board staff has the potential to grow a successful and sustainable organization.