I should be used to it by now, but it still shocks me when volunteer board directors describe their board as “well-intentioned.” Immediately, I understand.
Those who use this description alone to describe their board on some level realize their board’s performance is sub-optimal.
Well-intentioned means having or showing good faith despite a lack of success in meeting goals and/or objectives.
It’s hardly an adequate criterion for good governance or nonprofit excellence. Whatever else a nonprofit board is, aren’t we assuming that it’s well-intentioned?
It’s dangerous to defend “well-intentioned” boards.
Well-intentioned is often used as a way to excuse, ignore or downplay broader governance and/or organizational issues. Privately, nonprofit directors and executives are more candid.
A 2015 Stanford Business survey of 924 nonprofit directors revealed many are unsure of their organization’s mission and strategy, dissatisfied with their ability to evaluate their organization’s performance, and uncertain whether their fellow board members have the experience to do their jobs well.
The survey found:
27% of board members don’t think their colleagues have a strong understanding of the mission and strategy.
65% don’t think their board is very experienced, and about half don’t think their colleagues are very engaged in their work.
32% don’t think their board can evaluate their organization’s performance.
Why, then, do so many directors defend their boards with such an implausible argument?
The simple answer is human nature.
We don’t like to criticize our peers, and for many people, serving on nonprofit boards is a way of networking with peers, growing personal networks, or even building relationships with clients.
Most board members were recruited because they are smart, successful people with influential networks and a wealth of experience in a particular field. But they often lack expertise in the day-to-day work of the organizations they serve or perhaps even the nonprofit sector in general.
The more complex answer is that many volunteer board members are smart enough to understand that their organization is suffering but they don’t know why or how to fix it.
They are often unsure how to leverage their skills and contribute their leadership and often struggle with how they and their board colleagues can be most effective.
At least they are well-intentioned…
Turn well-intentioned into high-performing.
The highest performing boards are self-assured enough to be frank and hold each other accountable for the success or failure of the organization they’re collectively serving. They don’t hang the fate of their beneficiaries on good intentions alone.
recruit the right composition of leaders,
establish formal frameworks and processes to guide their governance,
have a strategy and regularly evaluate their own performance and the performance of their Executive Director or CEO against it, and
insist on impact evaluations to substantiate and demonstrate that programs work (and get funders to pay for them).
Let’s be clear.Transformative change demands more from boards than good intentions. Click To Tweet
Good intentions alone may not only be harming the growth and sustainability of your organization, they may also be failing to deliver for those you’re serving.
It’s time to ask more from nonprofit boards.
As a beneficiary, I’d rather be served by an ill-intentioned board who improved my life than a well-intentioned one who didn’t.