FOCUS ON POLICY Boards should leave operations alone


In the wake of recent revelations about lofty salaries of some top executives at the nation's largest non-profit organizations, there is renewed interest in the workings and responsibilities of boards of directors. And well there should be. The most critical factor in the success of any non-profit organization is its board.

My philosophical approach to the role of boards in non-profit work was recently tested in reading "Boards That Make A Difference," by John Carver (Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco). After years as a consultant to boards in the for-profit and non-profit sectors, Carver has distilled what he has learned into a well-documented -- if not terribly well-written -- book.

The essence of Carver's argument is that well-run boards can and do make an enormous difference in the success of non-profit organizations. The problem: Most are either completely uninvolved in the organization, or so involved in operations that they are meddlesome. In either case, the organization suffers.

What is critical, Carver says, is for boards to stay at the policy level, avoiding the tendency to delve into the details of operations. And policies need to be written clearly, simply and broadly enough to enable staff to operate without constant requests for permissions, clarifications and endorsements.

To operate at the policy level, according to Carver, the board must be the champion and guardian of the organization's values. It must constantly define and clarify the organization's vision. And it must offer that vision as a beacon for all to see.

I couldn't agree more with Carver's insights into board management.

Boards tend to get so lost among the trees that they forget they are primarily responsible for the agency's forest-eye view. That tendency, to get lost among the bushes, leads a board down a dangerous spiral, until fighting brush fires becomes the norm.

Boards must stay focused on ends, not means, Carver says. Let staff members know what ends are expected -- ends that are consistent with the organization's mission and vision.

Then, so long as staff members act prudently and ethically, the details should be left to them, under the direction of the chief executive. The board should be involved in managing the means only to the extent needed to refocus their efforts on mission, vision and policy.

Boards tend to confuse means with ends. Boards are often enamored with the mechanics of this program or that agency activity. They may be impressed by the fact that a counseling program serves 25 patients a day, a new agency record; or, by an event that drew more than a thousand participants.

That's fine, but the question is, were they effective? Did they result in the ends that the board wanted? Did the event simply draw lots of people, or did it advance a specific and defined organizational goal?

Another problem: the relationship between a strong, policy-making board and the chief executive. Strong boards demand strong executives. All too often, there exists a collusion between board and chief executive. Don't expect too much of us, and we won't demand excellence of you. Such collusion breeds mediocrity, at best. At its worst, it fosters poor staff morale, unethical conduct, a dysfunctional staff and board, and serious image problems.

One of the main barriers to board leadership is that boards are often threatened by such changes to their ingrained culture.

If our history is to stay focused on details, fighting fires, handling staff requests and approving staff reports, what does that tell us about the validity of our work, board members ask defensively? Carver suggests -- and I agree -- that serious boards should always be examining themselves, looking for ways to improve. A policy-level board functions more effectively than any other.

Next week we'll look at what board strategies are most effective in helping move the organization toward a commitment to excellence.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.


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