This post addresses the non-profit governance roles of Boards of Trustees. See related post: Governance and Foresight
Those in governance have a distinct role that may be at odds with the organizational roles they are used to. In the governance role, you wear a different hat. I bring to this question my own experience in non-profit governance. I am a trustee for two educational institutions. I also have worked as a futurist serving organizational leaders and boards for three decades. My work is about helping them understand change and prepare for the future. I have seen the traps and failures they face.
Trustees have a responsibility for the big picture and the long term. Jeff De Cagna of Foresight First LLC has done seminal work on explaining how and why boards need foresight. He coined the phrase “Duty of Foresight” and is at work to make the recognition of that duty a reality. [LINK]
Here are some of the pitfalls:
Misunderstanding the governance role. People who join boards don’t always know what governance is. They instinctively act like workers or day-to-day managers of the organization, and may have a weak or missing eye to the bigger picture.
Only responding to what’s laid in front of you. The role of a Board member is to look beyond, ask questions, frame things in ways different from how those in executive roles do. Here’s a post I wrote on this: “Don’t just answer the question you are asked”
(Only) chasing growth or dollars. A board can have “spreadsheet eyes” and fall into the habit of focusing tightly on financial matters, at the expense of the mission, sustainability, new roles, etc. Yes, the business model may be tracking well in terms of a budget and balance sheet. But is the organization on the right track?
Groupthink. The tendency for a governance group to go along so as to get along. Everyone should be coached to have a “yes, and” or “yes, but” frame of mind. A board’s leadership should model and validate this behavior.
Fix and stop. A temptation in a board role is to see that a problem in the organization is solved and then breathe a sigh of relief and fade back. Instead, the board needs to keep its eyes on the bigger picture, and turn to new issues and opportunities.
Falling out of the governance role. This happens when a Board member/trustee drops into the business of the day-to-day management, overriding decisions (as opposed to asking questions, framing long-term strategic goals, etc.) Some in governance are also in day-to-day roles. They have to be able to switch hats and maintain a mindfulness about which role they are in when.
Failing to exercise the duty of foresight. Last but not least, at the core of responsibility for the long-term success of an organization is anticipating the future. That means looking beyond the usual time horizon the organization considers, to take a view five, ten, or fifteen years out. Here Jeff De Cagna’s work (see above) is vital. I will address this more in a subsequent post. See: Governance and Foresight for more on his vital issue.
The solutions to these problems are in the hands of boards themselves. A board should give its new trustees a proper orientation. In it, they should talk through the role, learn from example cases of things that could come up in their board work. Since board members may also have “roll up your sleeves” duties, such as assisting with fundraising, it’s important to air out the question of which roles each plays, when.
Boards should refresh these lessons each year. People forget. One way to do that is to have existing trustees join new ones in their orientation. They can join in small group discussions of situations that come up for people in the role.
Trustees should get in the habit of saying, “why?” and “does this support our mission?” and “can this be sustainable or help the organization’s sustainability?” And they should call out pitfalls when they see them. "Watch out!"
Image: pitfall trap for wolf hunting, Germany. Georg Waßmuth, via Wikimedia Commons.