Ellis Carter’s Top 10 Non-profit Governance Mistakes (And 5 More)

Arizona exempt organizations attorney Ellis Carter kicked off her new blog, CharityLawyer, with a great post on nonprofit governance mistakes (from a lawyer's perspective).  Here's her list:

  1. Failing to understand fiduciary duties.
  2. Failing to provide effective oversight. 
  3. Deference to the executive committee, board chair or the organization's founder. 
  4. Micro-managing staff. 
  5. Avoiding the hard questions.
  6. Insufficient conflict management. 
  7. Lack of awareness of laws governing tax-exempts. 
  8. Operating with outdated, inconsistent governing documents. 
  9. Airing disagreements outside the boardroom. 
  10. Failure to cultivate board diversity.

I strongly encourage readers to read her full post here.  Really, go take a look now …

On Twitter, Ellis invited her followers to comment on her list.  That got me to thinking of some additional common problems (not in any particular order) …

11.  Recruiting and selecting board members without due care.  We sometimes select friends, relatives, and business associates often because we believe that they will share our vision, support our views, and make meetings pleasant.  And sometimes because we can't find anyone else.  We sometimes select influential and wealthy individuals because they will contribute substantial sums to the organization and connect us to their network of other influential and wealthy persons.  All of this may be well and good, but only if we make sure that we select directors who are going to attend meetings, provide real oversight, and govern using their independent judgment.

12.  Failing to educate and motivate board members.  If we're not in startup mode, we may be stuck, at least temporarily, with a number of directors who regularly fail to meet their legal duties of care and loyalty.  Amidst all the media attention on cases involving intentional misconduct, we should recognize that the vast majority of directors simply don't understand what they are supposed to be doing and believe that they will not be held accountable for their inaction.  It's up to the president, chair, executive director, and really each board member to correct this lack of understanding.  While this may be an ongoing (and seemingly Sisyphean) process, we can make some quick fixes.  Set up a basic orientation process.  Invite a nonprofit-exempt organizations lawyer to present to the board (directors' ears tend to perk up when they hear the word "liability").  Regularly send out information to the board about the organization's major issues (it's okay to be repetitive if the issues remain outstanding) and how board members might help.  Have the board conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis on itself (not just the organization) and create an action plan based on the analysis.

13.  Failing to document actions appropriately.  Some of us adopt minutes that are virtual transcripts of board meetings.  Others adopt minutes that only document actions without any mention of the process or deliberations.  What's proper?  Well, it depends.  But often what's most appropriate lies somewhere between these two extremes.  Documenting every discussion could create greater exposure for liability and makes it unlikely that minutes will be reviewed except in cases where we are looking for something specific.  On the other hand, documenting only actions can result in a loss of institutional knowledge about why certain decisions were made and provide less evidentiary support of a board's due care in making decisions.  Documenting nothing is not an acceptable alternative, but it's a common problem.  Do we incorporate minutes of board committee meetings into our minute books?  Do we even have minute books?

14.  Failing to review program effectiveness and efficiency and take appropriate follow-up actions. Many of us board members understand that we are fiduciaries and have a responsibility to provide financial oversight.  And we "know" that our charities are doing great work because the executive tells us so.  But how do we really know this?  And if charities exist to provide some sort of public good, and not to maximize profits, isn't programmatic oversight just as, if not more, important than financial oversight?

15.  Failing to hold executives (and nonparticipating directors) accountable.  This one earned a retweet from NY Times philanthropy correspondent Stephanie Strom.  How many of us give regular performance reviews to our executives?  Do we just give pats on the back (which we should do whenever deserved) or do we also take a hard look at deficiencies and take corrective actions?  Many nonprofits are transitioning to younger, less experienced leaders as the boomers start to retire or move to other positions.  Mistakes happen and may happen more often with new leaders.  How do we respond to this?  Do we document errors in judgment, complaints, abuses of authority?  Are we prepared to fire an executive even without malfeasance where he or she is just not getting the job done?  And what about removing directors who don't show up at meetings or otherwise fail to fulfill their governance responsibilities?  Tricky stuff, but don't we need to deal with it?