Posts by Rick Moyers

October 5, 2010, 10:39 AM ET

Dancing With the Board

Several years ago, while conducting a workshop on nonprofit boards for a group of 15 or 20 executive directors, I asked them to close their eyes and raise their hands if they wished that they didn’t have a board. More than half raised their hands.

Maybe this was an unusual group. I don’t think so. The truth is, a surprisingly high number of nonprofit executive directors view their boards as necessary nuisances required by law. They pay lip service to the importance of the board, but in practice they do everything they can to keep the board marginalized and out of the way.

Often for good reason. Plenty of boards and board members misbehave. Board members don’t know enough about the organization’s work to have informed opinions yet feel free to offer opinions anyway. They don’t know much about day-to-day operations, yet still second-guess executive decisions. Board members sometimes have...

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September 30, 2010, 01:25 PM ET

The Myth of the Heavy Hitters

Right now, somewhere, some nonprofit board member is about to say something that goes more or less like this: “I know we need the board to be better at fund raising, but I’m not sure we have the right people for that. What we need are some heavy hitters. Movers and shakers with deep pockets and big Rolodexes. That’s the only way we’ll ever be able to raise serious money.”

And off they go, usually ending the rant with a brainstorming session about who on the board has connections to prominent individuals and how they could be enticed into joining the board.

It’s an alluring idea. People give money to things they’re connected to, don’t they? And being a board member is a close connection.

You’re always reading about people who make bazillion-dollar gifts to hospitals and universities and other places where they’ve served as board members. So a nonprofit that could assemble a dream board—...

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September 24, 2010, 10:00 AM ET

Asking the Right Questions About Nonprofit Boards

Thanks to all of you who helped the first two posts of Against the Grain rank among the most viewed and commented-on pages on The Chronicle's Web site. We're off to a good start, and I appreciate all your great questions and words of encouragement.

Although I do appreciate all the questions, I can answer some kinds of questions better than others.

Simple questions about board size, committee structure, and frequency of meetings—which get asked all the time—are surprisingly hard to answer. Asking me those questions is like asking me how you should arrange the furniture in your living room. Without seeing your house and knowing how you use the room, I just don't know.

Without knowing what your organization needs from the board at this stage in its life, without understanding your board's culture and past practice, and without knowing anything about your organization, I wouldn't presume ...

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September 21, 2010, 09:42 PM ET

When Executive Directors Disappear

A few weeks ago, I received a terse e-mail from an organization announcing that its executive director of the past 10 years had stepped down (and was already gone). While acknowledging the contributions of the departed executive, the announcement fell far short of thanks or praise. It offered no explanation for the transition, not even the vague but utilitarian “has left to pursue other interests.” That left me to conclude that the executive director had departed involuntarily. Most likely under Circumstances That Cannot Be Discussed.

Executive director firings (to call them what they are) are inherently difficult. They are painful episodes fraught with emotion and peril. They represent a moment of legal jeopardy for the board and the organization, which heightens everyone’s anxiety. And aside from legal counsel, not much help is available for boards. There’s a considerable body of...

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September 21, 2010, 09:29 PM ET

Dealing With Knotty Board Problems: a Real-World Perspective

In 1992, I joined the staff of a young organization that is now known as BoardSource.

"Theories of change" were not yet all the rage, but looking back I believe we had one.

And it was simple: Put out better information about what boards are supposed to do. That will help boards improve. Better boards produce better nonprofits.

In many ways, we were right.

By the time I left the organization in 1999, we had produced scores of publications that were reaching thousands of people each year.

And evidence was accumulating that boards were doing better: more conflict-of-interest policies in place, improved committee structures, more thoughtful executive director performance reviews.

Incremental progress, but real. And also not enough.

Since leaving BoardSource (which continues to thrive and do great work), I’ve talked with hundreds of executive directors and board members about nonprofit...

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