Nonprofit boards aren’t as inept as the headlines suggest

The online nonprofit press is abuzz over the 2015 Survey on Board of Directors of Nonprofit Organizations, with headlines suggesting nothing but bad news. However, after digging into the report for myself, I’m here to dispute the board bashers. The survey results (at least as I read them) simply don’t support the sorry soundbite summaries.

hugh-macleodWhich leaves me puzzled by the sad spin on the findings by the Stanford University-based editorial team. To be sure, there are weak spots in how the 900 plus respondents rated the composition, structure, and practices of the nonprofit boards on which they sit. But positive responses outweigh the negative on the key questions.

You’ll want to check out the report for yourself. The nine recommendations for improved governance and board-level performance (p. 3) alone are worth the read. Until you get there, here are my highlights from the 2015 Survey on Board of Directors of Nonprofit Organizations.

SEEING THE GOVERNANCE GLASS HALF FULL

When queried about why they serve on a board, fully 86 percent of the nearly 1,000 respondents marked “to serve the organization and to contribute to its success.” No surprise there. That’s how nonprofit board members respond when they’re asked the question – year after year, survey after survey. Self-serving motivations mostly show up at the bottom of the list among nonprofit board members.

Seventy-three percent of the women (52 percent of total) and men (48 percent of total) who responded to the 2015 survey rate individual board members’ understanding of the mission and strategy of the organization as “extremely well” or “very well.”

When asked to identify the level of agreement among board members about mission and strategy, the picture was even rosier with 90 percent marking “strong agreement” or “agreement.” And these folks know what it means to put their money where their hearts are. A whopping 92 percent indicate they personally donate to the organization they serve.

Respondents to the survey report themselves as attentive to organizational performance (Question 13) and the effectiveness of approved strategies (Question 19). The majority of the boards (55 percent) have an audit committee. And more than two-thirds engage in regular (annual or every other year) self-assessment.

In other words, the boards represented in the study are more awake at the switch than the editors of the survey report imply.

To be sure, there’s room for improvement in how boards perform – something the best boards and most effective CEOs are quick to admit. However, the truth in the numbers from the 2015 survey points to more good news than bad.

If the 900 plus respondents are a representative sample, it’s not just that “good governance will almost certainly help nonprofit directors maximize their contribution to their social mission.” It already is.

If only the headlines told that story.

For more on the state of nonprofit board governance, see:

10 habits at the heart of exemplary board governance

Why telling boards that governance matters, matters

A five-step cure for boredom in the boardroom

Cartoon by Hugh Macleod. Check out his work here.

 

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