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The War Between Board and Staff

Nonprofits are weird. In no other industry will you find unpaid volunteers overseeing multi-million dollar budgets and staff. Not only do these volunteers give of their time and talent, they also bear the fiduciary duty of ensuring properly used funds (oh! and also, usually, donate personally). Staff, having eschewed higher pay or richer benefits in the for-profit or public spheres, get the unique privilege of reporting to people who may or may not understand their roles.  It's a beautiful, smart, crazy, nonsensical, brilliant system. But it works. Most of the time. 

And then it doesn't. 

Maybe it was a tersely written email, or a phone call that was returned too late. A fundraising goal that was missed, or an event that Board members didn't attend, but there's a point at which everything started to turn sour. Now there's mutual distrust, secret meetings, and people are leaving on both sides. How did we end up this way? 

Here are 5 signature phrases that get thrown around that could have sparked the flame and where you can start mending bridges, now: 

  1. "They Don't Understand What We Do!"

    It’s the rallying cry of disgruntled direct service staff, of underappreciated board members, and of frustrated admin members everywhere. And while it may be true that there is some misunderstandings of roles and accountabilities, to accuse any constituency within your organization of not understanding the mission is intentionally divisive and hurts the organization. Internal discord turns external rather quickly, and the effects on morale, fundraising, and ultimately mission delivery, can be profound.

    Solution: Organize an event that allows all levels of the organization to participate in direct work with the mission is a great way to create comraderie and open up conversations. 

  2. "We Are Volunteers!"

    Nothing riles up a staff member like a board member reminding them that "we are volunteers!" Much like the grandma who reminds you about the pair of pajamas you didn’t ask for, but perpetually guilts you for not wearing, board members love to throw this Molotov cocktail whenever things aren't going their way. Stop. You don't get to simultaneously gain glory for volunteering and then try to leverage it to guilt staff into jumping through hoops for you. Besides, it is inherently inequitable and not inclusive. It's fantastic you don't need financial compensation to work with the organization, but it doesn't put you on a different playing field than those who do. 

    Solution: This is something that usually comes up when board members feel their time commitments are not appreciated or understood. A clear way to manage expectations is to ensure there are current board contracts AND communications policies that are enforced by both board and staff

  3. "They Don't Need to Understand."

    As our second-grade classmates told us, ‘secrets don’t make friends.’ Whether it’s a sudden turnover in staff that wasn’t communicated to the Board, or a decision to close a program where staff were not informed, excluding certain constituencies from big changes can create a disparity in information sharing. Nonprofits are, by nature, public entities, so information sharing is critical to their continued success.

    Solution: While we acknowledge not every single detail needs to be shared with all levels for every decision, really critical decisions need to include input from all stakeholders. Not everyone is going to agree, and that’s ok, but allow the forum for everyone to be included in the information sharing. 

  4. "We Don't Need to be Micromanaged."

    Okay, maybe it’s personal here, but why all the hate for micromanagers? Some of us perfectionists just like things done exactly our way. All the time. Oh. We can see why that might be annoying. But in all honestly, what people usually mean by “micro-managing” is usually just management, and rarely falls into the realm of micro-management. It’s an important distinction. Because “micro-manager” is usually a title people are eager not to be perceived by, so it’s an effective way to end oversight, but it also shuts down important conversations.

    Solution: We are a strong believer in a governance role for Board members, but sometimes fiduciary duty demands Boards ask questions that might be perceived as “micro-managing” by staff. Just as onboarding for Board members should include communications guidelines with staff, onboarding with staff should include an honest (nonbiased) explanation of a Board and its role. 

  5. "I'm Not Calling as a Board Member, But..."

    Board members may feel if they approach staff as a “confidant” or “peer”, then staff will feel at ease and more comfortable discussing issues within the organization. However, it is not the Board’s responsibility to get into the nitty gritty of the daily tasks with the organization. Also, there is a chain of command in place to be followed. Also, these “off-the-record’ discussions sometimes lead to blurring of boundaries. And that’s truly dangerous.

    Solution: No secret meetings or calls should be had between staff and Board members. Nonprofits are built on the crux of transparency. Ensure that the Board communications policy is 100% clear and that communications go through the right channels. Secret meetings can create rifts and distance, resulting in a lack of trust and undermining the organizations.