Directors should spend time on policy and leave details to the staff


May 25, 1992

Each of the more than one million non-profit organizations in the United States has a board of directors or its equivalent.

But most of those boards are far from functioning as efficiently as they could be, according to many experts in the non-profit field. That's an awful lot of talented, well-meaning people wasting time.

If only there were a better way.

The good news: There is a better way, according to John Carver, author of "Boards That Make A Difference" (Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco). The bad news: It isn't easy to change the ingrained culture of established boards.

As a consultant, I am all too frequently amazed to see talented, experienced business people give up a valuable evening to sit around a table doing relatively meaningless tasks in the name of non-profit board work.

I've seen chief executive officers of major corporations approving monthly budget figures of non-profits with annual budgets that are less than their car phone bill. I've seen board members who are community leaders and professionals waste time approving the director's travel plans, and debate inane details like carpet colors.

These same people would never think of delving into that level of detail in their for-profit businesses.

One of the major problems facing the governance of non-profits is the lack of distinction between the board's roles and responsibilities and those of the staff. And there is even greater confusion about the relationship between board members and staffers below the level of executive director.

Allow me to clear up some of that confusion. Boards work best if they stick to policy and leave implementation to staff. Boards define the results they are seeking. The chief executive officer is responsible for achieving them.

By placing responsibility for achieving results on the CEO, the board must also leave staff leadership to her. The only way a board should ever deal with staff issues is through the CEO. Even the slightest attempt to circumvent

the CEO to deal directly with staff should be considered serious and worthy of lots of board soul-searching.

When boards stay at the policy level, they are free to do what they do best.

They can chart the future of the organization. They can reflect, debate options, stay in touch with their constituency. They can afford the luxury of long-term planning, examining trends that may affect their organization years down the road.

In his book, Mr. Carver goes a step further. He suggests that with a policy-level board, even board committees are largely unnecessary, a refreshing thought to many hard-pressed committee chairs.

Meetings are the most frustrating part of board work. Members' time is so thoroughly wasted with staff-level details that there is never enough time for important issues.

Mr. Carver offers a useful way to examine whether an agenda item is worthy of board consideration. He puts issues into four broad categories -- such as setting specific, attainable goals -- and advises boards to see if the issue in question meets criteria for a board concern. If it is a CEO concern, as most detail issues are, then the board has an obligation to not deal with it.

The danger is that many board members will view the policy-versus-detail debate as too threatening to the usual way they conduct business. Many board members will feel that the policy approach invalidates most of their efforts to date. This, in turn, sets the stage for politicizing the process of change.

Mr. Carter phrases this resistance to change succinctly. By embarking on a leadership course that characterizes a policy-making board, the board will be "inviting all the hurdles and detractors Machiavelli warned of."

Board visionaries, beware!

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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