Common Nonprofit Governance Problems – ABA Teleseminar

I am presenting a teleseminar with Lisa Runquist and Alice Anderson for the American Bar Association Center for Continuing Legal Education today at 1 pm Eastern Time (10 am Pacific Time) on the Responsibilities and Duties of Directors of Nonprofits: How to Limit Your Liability.  Here is an excerpt from my segment on a few common nonprofit governance problems:

  1. Perspective. Directors must understand that the game has changed. It’s no longer okay
    for nonprofit directors to ignore their fiduciary duties with the excuse that
    they’re volunteers. If you accept the position, you accept the responsibilities
    and the associated exposure for not meeting those responsibilities. Much
    more than ever before, there is scrutiny by the IRS, state agencies, donors,
    the media, charities ratings organizations, and the public. And there are
    new requirements and methods for organizations to be more and more transparent
    – not only about their operations but also about their governance. The
    era of the inactive/celebrity/fundraising directors is over.
  2. A general lack of
    understanding of the laws that apply to a nonprofit and to its directors
    It’s critically important for directors to have a general understanding of the
    overlays of federal, state, and local laws. For example, if you’re on the
    board of a charitable organization, do you understand the restrictions,
    limitations, and possibilities related to executive compensation, lobbying,
    political activities, earned income, business transactions with directors and
    officers, partnering with a for-profit, maintaining public charity status,
    audits, and operating in the zone of insolvency? If not, your
    organization may be out of compliance and/or not making full use of its
    abilities to further its mission. How well are you doing your job, if
    that is the case? Periodic training sessions for boards can be a valuable
    tool to help alleviate this problem – and something attorneys should strongly
  3. A lack of attention paid to
    the internal laws of the organization
    . Is the organization operating in
    furtherance of the exempt purpose stated in their governing documents? Do
    the directors really know, understand, and govern consistent with their bylaws
    and other governance policies?  This problem often results when a board adopts bylaws that it copied from another organization without careful thought and consideration about how they work under different circumstances.  It's far too common for nonprofits to ignore membership requirements they've inadvertently created, elect a different number of directors than is authorized, and not maintain officer positions and/or committees required under the bylaws.
  4. A failure to understand that a director,
    individually, has no inherent powers even though he or she 
    certainly has
    many responsibilities
    . Of course, the directors collectively as a board
    have powers. And individual directors may occupy officer positions with
    certain powers or be delegated with specific powers by the board. It’s
    common for certain individuals to wear more than one hat in the organization,
    and it’s important for the individual to distinguish his or her role when
    acting in more than one capacity. By the way, the board chair serves at
    the pleasure of the board, not the other way around.
  5. The upside-down board.  This refers to a far too common scenario where the board believes it serves at the pleasure of the executive, who often is the founder of the organization, instead of the other way around.  Remember, the board should review the performance of the executive, determine the executive's compensation, and, if necessary, replace the executive.
  6. Delegation without due
    care or sufficient oversight
    . It’s perfectly appropriate and necessary
    for boards to delegate management and certain governance-related tasks to staff, committees, officers, and task
    forces. But boards cannot delegate oversight. How do boards
    provide oversight? (A) By adopting and ensuring implementation of policies
    covering conflicts of interest, document retention and destruction, whistleblowers, executive compensation, joint ventures, gift acceptance, and review of the Form 990 annual information return.  (B) By developing a legal
    maintenance list and budget, and holding the executive accountable for compliance.
    It’s not practical for a board to oversee every single payroll tax payment and
    approve every single expenditure, so policies must be developed carefully to
    allow for appropriate delegation … but with sufficient oversight.