“Teetering on the verge of dysfunction”: The problem with not-for-profit boards

Using Parsons Dialogue's 4 Ps and other facilitation tools to help not-for-profit boards be more functional and effective

November 28, 2022

They come from all walks of life. Each with their own agenda. Most have the best of intentions.

This group of often complete strangers meets every one to three months for a couple of hours. They are expected to work together to govern organizations they may know very little about. 

Sounds like an unfair task, yet this is the reality of many boards of directors. 

Usually, the individual board members check all the official boxes. Many are professionals with deep expertise and previous board experience. Some have completed board or governance training and spent time learning the organization’s mission. They may do their best to stick to their ‘oversight’ lane and out of the details of operations. Most are working to ensure strategies are in place.

On their own, they could be rock stars. But as a group, boards are often a complete disaster making their executive director’s life difficult. 

We see this all the time

We work with a lot of non-profit organizations and their boards of directors. Usually, we are hired to support a strategic planning process or a board retreat. As we work through the process, we get all the dirt and start to uncover layers of dysfunction. 

We have seen this problem over and over, yet it seems to be a challenge for boards to recognize the dysfunction themselves.

Too often, they see themselves as ‘wise people, coming to be wise’ rather than a team of people coming together with shared responsibility and accountability for the long term wellbeing of an organization. They talk about themselves as skills to be recruited (“we need a lawyer” or “she’s an accountant”) rather than an important member of a well-balanced team. 

(Of course, this isn’t always the case. We have worked with some phenomenal and effective boards, and we’ll introduce you to one of them in next month’s blog.) 

How boards become dysfunctional

I recently taught a course that included a segment on the journey of a group. We talked about psychology professor Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s team development theory. The idea is, every team goes through four stages: forming, storming, norming and performing. It’s not necessarily linear but a reasonably predictable journey. Every time the membership changes, the dynamic shifts and the team goes back to the forming stage. A high-functioning team may move quickly to norming and performing, but one that was shaky to begin with can become mired in dysfunctional dynamics–a.k.a. ‘politics’.

With boards, membership changes often as terms expire. In fact, many boards are designed to have a portion of their membership rotate annually. Every time there is a change, the group must start right from the beginning. That crucial first step of ‘forming’ is often overlooked, which leads the group straight into the ‘storm’. 

This is where conflict arises. The group doesn’t communicate effectively; expectations are unclear; meetings are full of awkward, untrusting silence and gossipy ‘hallway chatter’ after the meeting ends. The dysfunction starts to build and the already tapped out executive director spends more time trying to navigate board dynamics than working on their organization. 

What can we do?

To move through the storm, boards need to spend intentional time on group dynamics and relationships. They need to see themselves as a team that contains a collection of skills that is also in service of the organization it governs. They need to be aware of the group journey and work together to clarify their practices – like how they make decisions, how they handle conflict and what is the standard of behaviour before, during and after meetings. 

We need to go back to basics with the Four Ps for team collaboration. Most of the time, boards are quite effective at the first three Ps: identifying a shared Purpose, agreeing on the Problems that need to be solved and making a Plan to overcome the obstacles. They don’t always spend enough time on the fourth P: Laying out the Principles, norms and values that guide the team’s culture and behaviour. 

Rather than approaching the board as an individual, members should think of themselves as a team and tend to those relationships and norms as they would in any other team. 

It seems simple, but it’s not. This takes time, and we must go slow to go fast. The first step is recognizing there is a problem, and sometimes it takes an outsider to do that. 

Happily, just this week we worked with a board where 80% of the membership was new. The Executive Director had the wisdom to ask that the retreat focus on the board as people, to understand their 'why' and their passion for joining the board. We talked about what it would take for them to be engaged and effective and importantly we talked about what 'noses in and fingers out' will look like for this board. Our process focused on relationship development and principles for working as a team. One seasoned board member said that this was the first time she's ever experienced this kind of a discussion as a board!

If you’re on a board of directors right now, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about the group dynamic. Is it being tended to? Have you established foundational agreements about conduct, conflict and communications? Have you ever spent time with any of the other board members outside those quarterly meetings? Have you spent time building relationships between board members? 

If the answer is no, I encourage you to step up. Start the change. Your fellow board members will thank you. Most importantly, the organization you’re governing will be better for it.

Feature image by Benjamin Child on Unsplash.

Written by
Robin Parsons

Robin has more than twenty-five years of experience as an effective leader and strategic thinker. She helps organizations have better conversations that help them work together more effectively.

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Parsons Dialogue is based in Calgary, Canada, serving clients across North America. We design and facilitate strategic processes that help teams collaborate with clarity and confidence.

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