An Age-Old Conflict
The people who are drawn to the operations side of any organization are invariably slightly different than those who are drawn to the policy-making side. It may be the water they drink or the genes they were born with, but there is a distinct difference that needs to be recognized and acknowledged for the health of the organization.
Some of the conflict surfaces because the board is made up of volunteers who may only attend a few meetings a month yet feel the need to stay involved in day-to-day operations. It is a natural desire to want to shepherd and nurture an organization they feel strongly about, and it needs to be respected. However, board members also need to trust the people who are responsible for the daily running of the organization.
The operations staff may have a better view of how policies impact the community the organization exists to serve, and they may be frustrated by their inability to make changes they know are needed. This is why establishing firm lines of communication and developing mutual respect between the board of directors and the operations staff is crucial.
To further complicate matters, your membership and possibly the general public will want to enter the conversation on any number of issues, inevitably coming down on one side or the other. Your task is to welcome that input and direct it in such a way that it alleviates, instead of contributes to, any tension
There are, of course, the very real legal responsibilities that come along with being a board member. Those responsibilities need to be woven into any understanding of how the board and staff work together and interact.Walk in the Other Person's Shoes
Although most staff people will find any possible reason to avoid attending a board meeting if they are not required to, extend the invitation broadly or to specific people now and then. People who say they don't like meetings may actually be saying that they don't understand what is going on and they feel out of place.
Assure them that they don't have to participate; they can simply observe and get a feel for the dynamics of the board of directors. If they have questions, encourage them to ask them after the meeting. At the meeting, simply introduce the guests in the room and let the meeting progress as usual.
Remember, among the volunteers and staff may be a future board member or someone who may be able to assume a leadership role in the organization. Although there may be some initial awkwardness as roles become blurred, a fantastic element of nonprofits is how quickly people can adapt when the organization requires it.
Strongly encourage board members to spend time with the volunteers or staff, helping in a hands-on way with the real work of the organization. For many, this is already a normal part of how your group functions. If not, this will help the board understand the frustrations and worries as well as experience the complete joy in work they might otherwise only see through the monthly financial reports.Seek Out Counsel and Advice
Along a similar vein, it may be beneficial for board members to make themselves available for informal, off-the-record conversations with staff and volunteers who may be having trouble or simply need a little help. The board members made it onto your board because they brought clearly identifiable talents or resources to the organization. Although most of their time may be committed to board functions, your organization can only benefit if they are also of direct assistance to the larger group. This is not an invitation to meddle or micromanage; instead, it is an opportunity to offer wisdom and knowledge with the luxury of being one step removed from the ongoing work.Back to Those Committees
Working, active, and engaged committees that grow out of the board of directors are often the hidden treasure of nonprofit organizations. Creating a supportive committee structure that encourages board members and community members to assume governance responsibilities provides an outlet for creative ideas and helps funnel those ideas into productive actions without cluttering up already full workloads.
Many of the stresses that come from having either a detached board or too many people involved in making operational decisions can be alleviated by making certain the committees are up and running.