Wednesday, April 4, 2018

LESSON 20 - Apply for a Staff Position and You Can Deal With That Issue!

Welcome to Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom Blog, a 40-week journey through the new book, Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom, by Dan Busby and John Pearson. Each Wednesday, we're featuring a guest writer’s favorite snippet from the week's topic. Rich Stearns is our guest blogger this week for the second of three lessons in "Part 6: Boardroom Time-Wasters, Troublemakers, and Truth-Tellers.”

LESSON 20 OF 40 - 
Apply for a Staff Position and You Can Deal With That Issue!
Help board members not to cross the line into operational details.

 In Lesson 20, we learn how to prevent board members from crossing the “bright line” between governance and ministry operations. Your board likely comprises professionals at the top of their fields, so it’s natural that they’re curious and opinionated about details in their realm of expertise. But just because they can wade into operational minutiae doesn’t mean they should. That’s not what a board of directors is designed to do. 

Clarifying the role and scope of board members is a foundational first step. Then, applying a few strategies to keep board members on task will mitigate the risk. 

MY FAVORITE INSIGHTS from Lesson 20, pages 99-103: 
•  “What happens when board meeting discussions regularly detour into operations? It squanders time that should be devoted to major issues, blurs the decision-making, and impacts the emotional well-being of CEOs and board members.”
“It is up to each board member to be spiritually discerning and highly sensitive about which topics they comment on during board meetings.”
• “Even though every board member can raise a concern about the level of the board discussion, the primary responsibility rests squarely on the board chair. He or she is the first line of defense for keeping discussions at the appropriate level.” 

In 20 years with World Vision, I’ve had time to bring added rigor to an already well-managed board of directors. We’ve developed a strong philosophy of governance that is codified in our Board Policy Manual, clearly defined in our orientation materials, and reinforced by governance refresher training. We also leveraged external expertise, including a two-day session with Bob Andringa on board development principles and practices. 

What serves us well is to employ guidelines that remind board members of their scope. There’s the “three hats” framework from Bob, defining the roles board members can play: governance, volunteer, and implementer. Naturally only one hat can be worn at a time. Outside of official meetings, individual members are simply volunteers with no authority to make directives to staff, and only occasionally can they act as implementers. We also embrace the acronym NIFO, “Noses In, Fingers Out”—shorthand for keeping members focused at the policy level. If the conversation strays to operational details, the board chair or a member will throw out the NIFO flag.

If hats, noses, and fingers don’t do the trick, I rely on the collective wisdom of the board. In response to a questionable suggestion from a member, I’ll say, “Let’s share this with the other directors. If they agree that the idea has merit, we’ll put it to a vote to make it policy.” Not surprisingly, that’s often as far as the matter goes.

Thanks to all these strategies, along with the solid leadership of the board chair and well-planned meetings, we’ve avoided the kind of “crossing the line” behavior described in Lesson 20.


Rich Stearns is the longest-serving president and CEO of World Vision U.S., leading the Christian relief and development organization since 1998. He calls Christians to action on the greatest needs of our day, including extreme poverty, hunger, and the plight of refugees. His best-selling book, The Hole in Our Gospel, has encouraged thousands of readers to open their hearts to those who are hurting in our world. The former CEO of Parker Brothers Games and Lenox is a frequent commentator in outlets such as Christianity Today and FOX News, an in-demand speaker at conferences such as Christian Leadership Alliance and Q Conference, and the author of three other books, including Unfinished: Filling the Hole in Our Gospel.

• Make sure an effective philosophy of governance is codified in your Board Standing Policy, and periodically refresh principles and practices of good governance with your board.
• From the board chair and CEO down, create a culture of healthy governance by preparing crisp agendas, conducting disciplined meetings, and holding one another accountable.


On April 11, 2018, watch for John Ashmen's commentary on Lesson 21, "Back Off the Ledge of Dysfunctional Mayhem. When dysfunction reigns, healthy board members head for the door."

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