A few months ago, I was asked to review a manuscript that touched on the subject of nonprofit boards and innovation. It struck a nerve, and I’ve been sore ever since.
As an example of recent innovation in nonprofit board practice, the manuscript cited the use of the “consent agenda.” A consent agenda allows boards to lump routine decisions into a single agenda item—eliminating the need to waste time discussing boilerplate items. The board can then approve all the items with one vote and minimal discussion.
To the best of my knowledge, the consent agenda concept was first discussed in The Effective Board of Trustees, a book by Dick Chait, Tom Holland, and Barbara Taylor that was published 17 years ago. Since then, it has been mentioned in several BoardSource publications.
Although I have a few reservations about the utility of the consent agenda in practice, my sore spot is not with the concept. What I find frustrating and astonishing is that this relatively minor tweak in the way boards go about their business, which was first suggested almost 20 years ago, is so often cited as a prime example of innovation in nonprofit governance.
Really? Is that all we’ve got?
If boards were generally high functioning and effective, I could understand the reluctance to innovate. Why mess with a good thing, right?
But there’s abundant evidence that boards often don’t function all that well. Just read through the comments that have been posted to this blog.
Or take a look at the Daring to Lead 2006 report. In it, about one-third of the nearly 2,000 executive directors surveyed reported low levels of board engagement and performance.
Or review Francie Ostrower’s eye-opening 2005 study of nearly 5,000 organizations, in which large numbers of respondents—between a third and half—rated their board’s performance as only fair or poor in most areas of board responsibility.
If what we’re doing now isn’t working for large numbers of boards, shouldn’t we be trying new things?
To be fair, there’s innovation taking place beyond the consent agenda. Boards are constantly downsizing and upsizing to find the right balance between inclusiveness and unwieldiness. Electronic communication and governance software are changing the way board members receive information and make decisions. But these things strike me as “mini-vations”—small and incremental changes at the margins—rather than real innovation.
On the theoretical side, Judy Freiwirth, Ruth McCambridge, David Renz, and others have proposed interesting new ideas about the fundamental role and purpose of boards. But what’s not clear to me is how the average executive director or board member is supposed to translate these ideas into innovative practice.
But then again, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps exciting, big-picture board innovations are taking place all around us. If so, I’d like to hear about them. Any innovations out there?