August 6, 2018

The Board vs. Staff Game: Who is Doing the Fundraising?

Men at a board meetingIt started with a threat, from a board member in the midst of a board meeting.

“If she doesn’t produce in a year, she’s out of here.”

Thirty seconds. Sixty seconds.

Silence hung in the room like fog at dawn.

I was beginning my third job with a nonprofit. The first two positions were highly sought-after spots with low-pay and high-perks.

This job was different.

This nonprofit hired me after a near-unanimous vote, which the executive director explained, “was pretty unusual for us.” I was too naïve to hear the conflict woven into his words.

When Your Board Plays The Board vs. Staff Game

If you’ve been in the nonprofit world for long you’ve heard this or a similar exchange.

The discussion above reflects a host of challenges. In my case, the board was not dealing with a bully in their midst (thus the silence.) They were dallying in the details. (Read Establish Board Boundaries for more on this dilemma.) They were engaged in a destructive game I call, The Board vs. Staff

This damaging game involves the board’s setting strategy with an assumption of infallibility. Since the board’s right, if solutions fail, it’s the staff’s fault. Case closed. Off with their heads.

What’s wrong with playing The Board vs. Staff? Instead of fulfilling the mission by working together externally to make millions, the focus shifts to internals. These include quotas, fear of failure, and dodging the blame. The staff and board don’t see themselves as partners in success. That is, the game destroys the team working together to create breakthrough leadership using superlative thinking.

The “We’re In This Together” Approach

Boards set strategies. Staffs execute strategies. However, despite conventional thinking, strategies are not one-and-done. They need refinement underway since you learn in real-time what works and what’s not up to snuff.

When strategies “don’t produce,” lots of possibilities exist about why. The staff may lack skills. The board might have set a weak strategy. More likely, say in 90 percent of the cases, the strategy is on target and staff’s progressing. Yet, kinks exist that need to be jiggled out. You do this with joint expert, board, and staff thinking.

How I Used the “We’re in This Together Approach 

In my new job, I found partners, not board members, to help. They helped me to exceed the board’s expectations. I stayed for three years and left with a lifetime commitment to helping blow up mission blocks, such as The Board vs. Staff Game so that nonprofits striving towards their visions thrive. That’s how my business started.

Your Challenge

When have you seen The Board vs. Staff Game? How did you respond? Where do you see this game or a similar one being played now? How will you respond? For more, email Karen to set a time to talk.

For more answers, check out the Nonprofit CEO Library.

For solutions delivered to your inbox sign up for Karen’s CEO Solutions.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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