Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.

Peter Drucker

“We have a working board,” a board member tells me. This is intended to let me know that, somehow, this board is different from other boards and they are all volunteers doing a lot of work. Let’s revisit that: “This board is different from other boards, we are all volunteers, and we are doing a lot of work.”  How is this different from your board?  I bet it isn’t. That’s why it is the Working Board Myth.

Let’s bust this myth. All boards work. Almost all nonprofit boards are 100% volunteers. And, each board is unique. The distinction is what the board member meant by “work” – what board members are working on.

What she was talking about was doing the mission work of her nonprofit—what others refer to as being involved in the operations of the nonprofit. This is indeed a different type of work than governing. I am sure you are familiar with small nonprofits who rely on volunteers to fulfill their missions on a day-to-day basis. In these cases, it is common for board members to be among those volunteers.

Nothing wrong with that. However, no one has unlimited capacity (if you do let me know!) Too often, board members who are volunteering in their nonprofits’ operations are also using time in board meetings to plan, coordinate, and/or even do this work. When this is happening, governance can get short shrift and, then, the benefits of governance are unrealized!  Those benefits include:  better organizational decision, more community engagement, more resources etc. All nonprofits need these.

Three tips to consider to make sure governance is not getting short shrift in your nonprofit:

  1. Be sure all board members understand their governing roles and responsibilities.
  2. Clarify and agree on the capacity you need to govern effectively (e.g., board composition) and the capacity you need to get your nonprofit’s work done (unpaid/paid staff).
  3. Separate the structures you are using to manage the work of the board and the work of your nonprofit. If this is all happening at the board level now, consider adjourning the board and having your board-member operations volunteers reconvene as a management team.

Thanks for all the work you are doing to make our communities better!