The nonprofit sector is the country’s third largest workforce and still, we fail to treat it like an actual industry. Unfortunately, those attitudes start straight at the top with nonprofit boards.

After over twenty years working with nonprofits, I have learned a few things: 1) Board members are quick to remove their business hats upon joining a nonprofit board; 2) Board members frequently feel their fiscal responsibility, which is spelled out clearly by the IRS, is optional and not requisite; 3) Staff members often end up owning the roles of their board members.

The sector is in crisis with staggering levels of turnover and executive burnout and yet I don’t see boards doubling down on supporting their teams. In a typical business, if there were significant staff losses there would be a strong focus on employee retention. Sadly, I see boards asleep at the wheel while the industry is Thelma and Louise-ing off the cliff.

I have worked with highly accountable boards and more often with boards who are weak, irresponsible, and impotent. Board Impotence is when a nonprofit board is helpless, floundering and unable to take meaningful action. It can be seen in board rooms throughout the country and may take the form of incessant pontification, strategic planning that never ends, finger-pointing at staff, avoiding hard conversations and a failure to be self-reflective, all of which results in weak fundraising efforts, staff turnover and low morale.

Board members need to consider some hard truths:

If your board meetings are led by staff, you are failing. If you don’t give financially to your organization, you are failing. If you avoid and ignore emails, meetings, reminders from fellow board members, or your executive director, you are failing. These failures matter. The cost comes at the expense of the organization.

Serving as a nonprofit board member is an honor. Truly. Board members are selected because an organization believes in the prospective member’s commitment to the community and assumes that person has skills which will help it achieve its mission.

New ideas are great, but without a plan for implementation staffers hear only “more work, same pay.” This is my plea to the nonprofit board member – don’t be that guy/gal/person. Resist the urge to create more work for your staff without pledging to take on more work yourself.

The life of the nonprofit Executive Director is so challenging that the average tenure is now only three years. Imagine having a full-time job with more work than you can reasonably handle (because your work is supposedly mission-driven, and you “should” do more) without bonuses or incentives. You have 8 or 9 bosses, all of equal stature giving you a constant stream of ideas and then asking why you haven’t implemented them and calling you defensive when you push back. Your salary is posted for the public to see in a form 990. Yes, your father-in-law and ex-girlfriend know how much you make. Your budget increases each year with no business plan to make it achievable. There is typically little budget for leadership development and no training for tactical work that would absolutely be provided in the for-profit world. 

Consider all this when you accept the honor of serving on a nonprofit board and make the decision to lead with humility and become a partner to the staff. Assist with governance, planning and fundraising. Be a helping hand rather than another burden. Share new ideas knowing you will need to offer support if you’re adding new work. Give money generously and joyfully. Know when your time is up and leave the board when you recognize you’re no longer adding value. Join only a few boards and participate fully. Be accountable to the staff and your peers equally. Accept the honor and live up to it. Your Executive Director will thank you for it.