Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

December 3, 2007

Nonprofit boards ‘in denial’

Nonprofit boards must occupy an alternate universe.

Consider the American Red Cross.

Six months after hiring former IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson following an 18-month search, the Red Cross board last week fired Everson for having an affair with an employee.

As Peter Dobkin-Hall of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard told The New York Times, the Red Cross board historically has been a “board of denial.”

The Red Cross board is not alone.

Disengaged, clueless and weak, boards are sucking the life out of nonprofits.

The job of nonprofits boards is to govern their organizations, chart their strategy, manage their risk, oversee their business, report to funders, gauge performance and, not least, secure resources.

But as lawyer Marty Martin recently told a workshop hosted by the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University, a big gap separates what boards say and what they actually do.

It is in that gap, he said, that governance begins.

Board should be working actively to lift up their nonprofits with the vision, direction and connections they need.

Instead, boards are content to wallow in their own confusion about their role and the operations and needs of the nonprofits they serve.

Boards should be engaged continually in crafting a vision for their nonprofits, focusing on mission, enlisting givers, improving performance, mapping the future, and helping staff gear up to identify and deal with opportunities and threats.

Instead, boards waste their meeting time listening to mind-numbing financial reports and nodding their heads to the reassurances the staff feeds them that all is well.

As Martin told the Institute for Nonprofits’ workshop, boards need continuing education about their role and about the nonprofits they serve.

Uninformed, disengaged and pliable boards arguably represent the biggest challenges nonprofits face.

Nonprofits need to shake their boards out of their fog of denial, and start picking new board members with passion, energy and the willingness to learn and fill the roles they need to play to equip their organizations to effectively attack the urgent social problems facing our communities.


  • At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Frank K. Simon, Jr. said…

    Board members need to be involved. A board position must be more than just a social status/resume building activity.

    Just as important is the need for Executive Directors to be entrepreneurial in spirit. They need to invigorate the board, the staff, and the donors.

    Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does eliminating denial start with the board or with the executive director?


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