Boards should strive to be resilient, not efficient

December 15, 2015

If you’re like a lot of Executive Directors I know, it’s very like that you are at least a little frustrated with your board. “They always take so long to do anything! Why couldn’t they just be more efficient?”

After all, you as the ED are probably looking for ways to be more efficient with your resources (whether time or money). So why can’t the board do the same, right?

Well I’m here to tell you something important about boards and efficiency.


Yes, we should all listen to Nonprofit Consultant Admiral Ackbar! The pursuit of efficiency on your board of directors is a trap.

Board work and committee work can be frustrating and messy, even with the best of boards. Getting a budget passed can take FOREVER. It’s easy to think, “I’m the Executive Director, wouldn’t life be easier if the board just didn’t ask questions and passed the budget I gave them? It would be so much more efficient.”

There are two big reasons this is a trap.

The first is that groups almost always make better decisions than people can make on their own. If you make all the decisions for the nonprofit, you won’t have anyone challenging your assumptions or your biases. A board with a diverse set of backgrounds, skills, and expertise will be able to make sure that any one person doesn’t lead the organization into a massive blunder because of a blind spot. You need the board for this, even if it takes more time and even if it’s frustrating.

There’s another reason you should let the board do this work and not try to take it over yourself: the board needs to practice being a good board.

Here’s a quote that comes to mind to better explain what I mean:

“Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.”

In other words, if you want to be great, you need to practice being great. If you want your board of directors to rise to the occasion when an opportunity presents itself or when a crisis looms, then they need to practice in the small moments. That means they need time to adopt policies and review bylaws and critique your budget and do the slow hard work of coming to consensus together.

If you did all those things on your own, yes it might be more efficient, but you would be depriving your board of the chance to practice working together. Without having that practice, when the big thing happens—when the character-defining moment approaches—your board will not have put in the time together. They will have thrown into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim.

The systems you are helping the board to create, however slowly, is what will ensure that organization can weather a shock. If there is some kind of emergency, the board will have practiced its internal communications and work flow so they can react far more strongly than they would react if it happened without them building a more formal board structure.

Let me put it another way: like many small nonprofits, you have been operating what is probably a highly efficient organization. But to last, you and the board are going to need to put time and energy toward becoming resilient, which is frequently at odds with efficiency.

Building resilience takes practice. It means building committees even though it feels like you don’t need them. It means passing policies, even if the idea of “policies” feels oddly formal to your small nonprofit. It means going a little more slowly sometimes and really working through an issue so that all voices are heard instead of forcing an issue early so you can get your way.

It’s hard. It will feel messy and difficult sometimes. But there will come a time when your organization will face a decision point when you will appreciate that your board has the institutional resiliency to carry it forward.

Want to help your board improve and build resilience? “The Little Book of Boards” might be the answer! Download a free preview of “The Little Book of Boards” to see if this is the right resource to improve your board and make your day-to-day life better.

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