Why boards get bored
How can the work of a nonprofit board be complex, consequential, and tedious all at the same time?
Build not an empire where everything is perfect… At the core of your perfection will be emptiness, and you shall have no joy of it. Nay, rather build an empire where all is zeal.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, from The Wisdom of the Sands
Nonprofit governing boards are often populated by exceptionally talented, successful, clever, and purposeful people. And yet, when they gather, they can seem so listless and lost. They plod through agendas, discuss without direction, and focus on the trees and shrubbery rather than the forest and its biosphere.
It may be that it’s confusing to be a board member – as I describe in this video – and confusion leads to disconnection. Or, it may be that executive leadership prefers their board detached and unfocused. One executive director described to me his “mushroom method” of board management: “keep them in the dark, and every now and then shovel shit on them.”
But there’s another possibility that explains board detachment and dysfunction: boredom. Psychologists define boredom as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity” (Eastwood et al 2012). And, according to Chait, Ryan, and Taylor (2005), that’s the frequent state of governing boards:
“…many board members are ineffectual not just because they are confused about their role but because they are dissatisfied with their role. They do not do their job well because their job does not strike them as worth doing well.”
But how is this possible? Governing boards hold essential roles in the social fabric of society. They are ultimately responsible for the health, vitality, impact, and legal/ethical compliance of a purpose-driven enterprise. And yet Chait et al conclude that “they are derailed by the meaninglessness of what they do.”
Those authors offer four primary sources of this contradiction:
Some official work is highly episodic - Many of the big jobs of a board don’t happen that often: hiring a new CEO or defining the organization’s mission, as two examples. Without these large and essential activities to attend to, board meetings are filled with smaller and more trivial work.
Some official work is highly unsatisfying – Another key role of the governing board, “monitoring and oversight,” is more about preventing trouble than promoting success. As the authors describe: “Oversight is more looking than finding. And the work of looking is often technical – scrutinizing budgets, financial statements, or construction plans – and often tedious to boot.”
Some important unofficial work is undemanding – Nonprofit boards often provide legitimacy for an organization, with their individual credentials and status signaling that the organization is important. Further, board meetings provide an incentive for executives to order and organize their work in meaningful ways. Both of these functions require nothing from board members beyond signing up and showing up.
Some unofficial work is rewarding but discouraged - Individuals often join the board because they care deeply about the organization’s work. And yet, hands-on and material board participation with staff can be problematic. Staff members report to the executive and not to the board. And power relationships can be confusing when board engage with staff.
At this point, some of you may be rolling your eyes. Board members are often the most powerful, wealthy, and priveledged members of their communities. Who cares if they’re bored or detached from the meaning of their community work? Let them figure it out.
And yet, any system of leadership that flows toward dysfunction and disconnection seems worth reshaping. And there are ways to engage all of the challenges above. The first step is to name them out loud. The second is to navigate to avoid the usual currents.
Some studies of boredom suggest that it has an evolutionary purpose, that boredom “motivates pursuit of new goals when the previous goal is no longer beneficial” (Shane and Lench 2013). If so, then it’s long past time to embrace the tedium and ennui of board service and accept its call to change.
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From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Governance
Governance involves structuring, sustaining, and overseeing the organization's purposes, resources, and goals (often through boards or trustees).
Framework of the Week: Connection Concern Capacity
Development consultant Kay Sprinkel Grace suggests three primary attributes of potential individual donors that should guide your strategy: connection (emotional), concern (intellectual), and capacity (financial).
Bench, Shane W., and Heather C. Lench. “On the Function of Boredom.” Behavioral Sciences 3, no. 3 (September 2013): 459–72.
Chait, Richard, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor. Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
Eastwood, John D., Alexandra Frischen, Mark J. Fenske, and Daniel Smilek. “The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 5 (2012): 482–95.
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. The Wisdom of the Sands. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.
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