Good Governance Takes More than Passion

By Susan Meier

Most board members sign on for board service because they have a passion for the mission and want to give back to the community. Some of our best and brightest join these boards. They bring experience, skills, perspectives and, yes, passion.

But is that enough?

The truth is: it’s not enough. If it were, our boards wouldn’t be hampered with boring board meetings, routine work, disengagement and, at times, even conflict.  Why is it that we can bring such talented individuals into a boardroom and yet struggle to optimize their many gifts and skills?

One reason is because the very nature of a nonprofit board requires us to work effectively as peers rather then in a hierarchical structure. It is incumbent on board members to learn how to work effectively together as a group of equals, which is a 180-degree paradigm shift from the business environments in which most of us work.

A few years ago a corporate leader at Time Warner, having joined her first nonprofit board six months previously, told me:  “I walked into the boardroom and I had no title, no staff, no salary and no authority. I was equal to everyone else in the room, and I began to realize that I had to learn to lead by effectively influencing others and by asking great questions.” Insightful. Just like we want our board members to be.

The second reason is that nonprofit boards don’t always understand that the role they play changes as the organization evolves.  The work of a board for a young start up with little or no staff is very different that the work of a board for a mature organization with a competent staff. Effective boards understand this and work to manage these changes well.

Another reason is that our chief executives don’t often recognize the value that their nonprofit boards can bring. For many, sadly, the board requires tremendous care and feeding with little to show for it. But what if we changed the formula? What if our boards managed themselves better? What if our boards had greater clarity about how they could meaningfully support the organization and help advance the mission? What if the board actually became a strategic asset to the organization, offering the chief executive perspectives, knowledge and connections that one leader could never master alone?

Sounds good, doesn’t it? So, how can we effectively engage board members both individually and collectively and transform them into becoming a strategic asset? It’s actually easier than you might think. I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of nonprofit boards over the years, and I’ve seen virtually every type of board from the most effective to the pitifully struggling.  And time and time again, I have seen boards move to the next level of effectiveness by doing two things: focusing on that which matters most, and engaging in more meaningful and consequential work.

Passion for our missions is essential, but it alone is not enough. We must explore how to take that passion, work effectively as a collective and engage our boards in the work that matters most. That is what good governance is all about. Learning how to develop and engage these governance tactics is the topic of the second 2014 Shine the Light Leadership Academy series, to be held at the Kroc Center on July 16 from 8 a.m. to noon.

Now in its fifth year, DNA Creative Communications’ Shine the Light Nonprofit Forums is a training series developed in partnership with United Way of Greenville County, the Community Foundation of Greenville and the Hollingsworth Funds. This year’s four-half sessions, targeted at nonprofit executive directors and board leaders, will focus on leadership. Each session will look at leadership through a different lens. Following the July 16 session, subsequent sessions will focus on expanding leadership (September 9) and leading for sustainability (November 19). Each session will include a nationally known keynote speaker and a panel of local leaders.

Hundreds of organizations that form Greenville’s nonprofit and philanthropic community spend their days tackling tough issues and enhancing the quality of life for all who live here. We couldn’t do it without the unwavering support of many thousands of Greenville residents who give their time, talents and resources to the causes about which they care. Leadership development through DNA’s Shine the Light Nonprofit Forums will enhance the value of those investments and increase the chance that together we can create the Greenville County to which we all aspire.


Susan Meier, principal of Meier and Associates in Washington, DC, brings over 26 years of governance and nonprofit experience to her work. Susan will be presenting at Shine the Light on July 16.

Posted July 15, 2014 in: Blog, Speakers by Debbie Nelson

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