Board “Goldilocks Syndrome:” Cultivating an Engagement that is Just Right

by Lisa Barnwell Williams, Instructor for Board Development 

Nothing to it: a board is just a few rich people writing checks, right? I hope not! If so, you may be perennially running your organization in second gear: it keeps going, but never really soars. A great board can make all the difference but requires a solid, shared understanding of the board's role and an organization-wide commitment to the dynamic balance of good governance.

Look closely at the challenges your organization faces, and you may find that the board plays a far larger role than you imagine. Does it seem that your organization’s board has too much:

•    Micromanagement? A board that's overly involved in every detail may not recognize the organization's size and sophistication or the staff's level of professionalism. Perhaps your organization has outgrown the hands-on board model that worked so well for a start-up organization.

•    Rubber-stamping? At the opposite end of the spectrum, the board is expected to be a full, working partner in the organization, not just a list of names in the annual report. Intelligent questions and informed suggestions provide an essential counterpoint to the staff's insider perspective.

•    Conflicting direction? Strong governance requires not just shared goals, but a well-organized team, at both the board and the staff levels. Too little structure, or faulty lines of communications, can result in redundancies and conflicts and tension.

•    Unrealistic expectation? Well-prepared, actively involved board members recognize that you live in the real world. There's nothing wrong with ambitious goals, but the board is there to help construct a clear, attainable path that enables the organization to achieve those goals.

On the other hand, do you find yourself struggling with not enough:

•    Money? Maybe your board just isn't writing big enough checks, but more likely your organization is not maximizing the board's connections, not only to other potential individual donors but also to corporate, foundation, and governmental support.

•    Advice? Even the best board rarely offers unlimited free counsel, but engaged, well-qualified board members can be a ready source of expert insights on topics as diverse as personnel, legal affairs, communications, fundraising, and IT, among many others.

•    Time? You don't have to do it alone! An active board is the foundation of an active volunteer corps that can manage events, staff committees, build networks, and make friends.

•    Planning for the future? Looking forward is a key responsibility of the board. Strategic planning, investigating potential new initiatives, comparing alternative growth models: staff members have their hands full dealing with today, but board members are tasked with thinking about tomorrow.

Both the board and the staff want your organization to be the best it can be. Whether you are a current staff member, emerging arts manager, or the board member of an organization, taking the time to understand how boards function—the who, what, when and why—will help you work together in partnership to build a healthy, long-lived organization.

This article was originally posted in July 2016. Lisa has over 30 years of  fundraising experience, pioneering online prospect research and having led development efforts for several nationally-recognized organizations, including Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati Ballet, and the Agnes Irwin School. Co-founder of Chanticleer Consulting and co-author of Building Strong Nonprofits: New Strategies for Growth and Sustainability, Lisa has given seminars and workshops to countless audiences around the country on various aspects of organizational development, fund development, and communications. Lisa will be teaches AES' Board Development course this summer. You can read Lisa's bio here.