Readers of The Networked Nonprofit know that Beth and I have a chapter on governance that reveals the sorry state of most board/staff relationships. Based on research from the Urban Institute and Board Source, our chapter outlines the fact that as organizations get larger, board members tend to be more male, more white, more rich and less helpful. There is a constant undertone in most organizations of resentment by the board of controlling chief executives, frustration by executives that board members don’t understand the day-to-day work and don’t give enough. Most of all, too many boards are sets for kabuki theater; set dramas where all the actors know their lines; the chair gives an opening, the chief executive provides a summary of all the recent successes, the treasurer talks about the growing deficit, and the committee chair report out on their laundry lists of activities and programs. The meeting adjourns two hours later with very little accomplished except for a sense by the participants that they have done what they’re supposed to do.
This theater perfectly captures to a small degree the extreme example of governance dysfunction outlined in the Free report about Penn State. Jim Canales, the CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, perfectly captures the problems of the board/staff relationship in an op-ed for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The crux of Jim’s argument is that the board deferred to the University president to an outrageous degree, not holding him accountable for the culture of the institution. Jim writes, “nce again, we learn that the board was uninformed and disengaged; we read about a patent disdain for transparency; and we discover a culture that—in discouraging any dissent—created the preconditions for precisely these tragic events.”
The saddest part of all this for me is that I am not surprised by any of it. We’ve been here before, and, sadly, we’ll be here again, and I wonder what part of the governance process or relationship or even existence is so difficult that so few organizations do it well. Senior executives feeling that they have to “manage” their boards, stop them from interfering and micro-managing, share as little as possible with them are the norms not the exception. And board members more interested in the appearance of service than actually being trained as nonprofit board members (not the same as sitting in a meeting at work!) and learning about the work of the organization and insisting on accountability are the exception not the rule. Are the models for good governance, as Jim writes in myriad pamphlets, books, training courses, etc. so difficult and unrealistic that most organization will simply never be there – like the perfectly toned, vegetable eating people we imagine, on our couches, remote controls in hand, that we are going to be any day now.
One thing I do know, I’m tired of hearing the same sorry story over and over again.