Board members, please check your egos at the door

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, I had to go to the emergency room for severe pain in my right side, and found out I likely have kidney stones and it may take weeks for it to resolve. I’m on some pain medications. So this post may be slightly cranky and possibly filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Drink lots of water and cut back on sodium. Kidney stones are not fun; 3 out of 5 stars, would not recommend.

A while ago, I wrote about the Rule of One-Thirds when it comes to boards: One-third of boards are helpful, one-third are useless, and one-third are actually destructive to their missions. Of the two-thirds of boards that are useless or destructive, a lot of it can be blamed on the fact that the default board model we’ve been using is archaic and makes little sense. Let’s take a group of well-meaning people who see one percent of the work, who often have little to no nonprofit experience, and who many times don’t reflect the community being served, and give them vast power over the organization. (And while we’re at it, let’s have them conduct business through Robert’s Rules, a set of rules formalized literally 145 years ago, in 1876).

While our sector works to explore new governance models, we need to address other issues with boards, namely that many board members, and specifically board chairs, have warped perceptions of their importance, combined with delusions of wisdom. Board members’ egos can be one of the most aggravating things about working in this field. It is probably one of the biggest drivers of EDs/CEOs quitting their jobs to pursue a career in real estate.

Boards are groups of volunteers who give a lot of time, money, and skills to nonprofits, and should be appreciated. But like funders, you wield enormous power in our sector, which means no one is telling you the truth, and the truth is that many of you are causing a ton of damage. So, if you are a board member, and especially if you are a board chair or will assume this position, please check your egos and remind yourselves of these things:

1.You, the board, and other board members are not the boss of the ED/CEO: Boards have an important role in maintaining legal compliance and ethical standards at their orgs. Over time, that has led many board members to somehow think they’re basically the supervisors of the ED/CEO. It is ingrained in all of us, and EDs/CEOs will think along this line too. I myself have introduced a board member at an event and joked “this is one of my bosses.” Yes, the board can hire and fire the ED/CEO in the traditional model, but that does not mean they are the supervisors of the latter. This is not a perfect analogy by any means, but I liken boards and staff to legislative and executive branches branches of the US government, respectively. Just because the legislative branch can impeach and remove the president, that does not mean that Congress members and senators are the “bosses” of the president and their staff. So stop thinking and acting like you’re the boss. And everyone, stop joking about it.  

2.You are almost guaranteed to know less than the staff on just about everything: Because of power dynamics, staff often hold back their opinions, and over time you start to think you know more than the staff on a variety of things. You don’t. This is not a question of your intelligence. Staff spend significantly more time on the organization’s work, because that’s what they’re paid to do, so of course they will know more than you. So when you have a conversation about anything related to the organization and its work—finances, fundraising, staff compensation, capacity building, strategic planning, etc.—and you find yourself disagreeing with the team, remind yourself that you have a fraction of the information and experience that the staff has.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.