The biggest factor in low-functioning boards is that board members don't know what being a good board member means in the nonprofit. And sadly, nor do many executive directors (ED). Or if they do, they aren't skilled at conveying this to their boards. So, boards end up doing their best, usually a far cry from what is really needed.
But the board role is different from that of the staff. And this really must be clear to both the board and the staff to avoid problems (micro-managing and apathy chief among them) and to achieve the nonprofit's true potential.
A good general guideline for the essential difference between board work and that of the staff is "if it's a matter of what to do, that's the board's work; if it's a matter of how, then it's staff." But, of course, the devil is in the details: the actual figuring out what's a what and what's the how. This is why the most important role in the nonprofit organization is the ED, because its primary responsibility is to bridge between the board and the staff. To be effective, the ED must understand the difference between board and staff work in their particular nonprofit and act to make the delineation clear to all.
Consider these steps to get both the board and the staff working optimally:
1) The board's big job is to set the destination for the nonprofit organization - where is it headed, why and by when? These questions should be asked and answered about once a year (things change!) by the board collectively, in a facilitated process that also includes key staff members. But it's the board perspective that should prevail in this setting, meaning that the facilitator should guard against the tendency to make laundry lists of new program ideas. There's nothing wrong with this, but programs tend to be more about how and so should be considered in staff meetings/retreats.
2) The ED and the board chair should plan this session together with a seasoned facilitator so that the session is productive, engaging and results in simple, clear answers to these important questions.
3) Then the staff should be tasked with creating a work plan by which the organization will make progress toward its chosen destination. The board can review this plan and should officially approve it, along with the annual budget to make it happen. But the board's work is to ask is this plan likely to get us where we want to go and for a cost this organization can afford? If the answer is no, the board doesn't fix the plan, they send it back with comments to the staff for revision.
4) When the year's planning is complete and the implementation is set in motion, then what do board members do?
Act as expert advisers on issues that arise and decision-makers on important policy decisions
Act as key resources and ambassadors for networking and fundraising
Monitor progress on both the work plan and budget, and offer counsel on course correction where needed
If all this sounds like an unrealistic ideal, it's definitely time to do some leadership development within the organization. It can be challenging for an ED to "train" their board - especially if the board has been functioning in the "old way" for a while. But transforming the board into a meaningful contributor, one that serves the nonprofit wherever it is in its life cycle, and one that fulfills its governing role is the responsibility of the ED (and of board leadership, when the understanding is there).
The best place to start is the ED's own understanding of the board/staff roles: are you clear about what this looks like in your nonprofit? Once the ED is clear, initiating a conversation and process with the board chair to facilitate the board's understanding and then working through board orientation, governance, and meeting processes/standards are excellent places to begin.
And remember, EDs that routinely complain that their boards aren't functioning optimally are essentially wearing a sign that reads "I don't know how to do my job." Boards do what they are cultivated, asked and supported to do. Getting this right is a big job for any ED, but it is indeed the job.
Nonprofit-KnowHow is designed to aid EDs and boards in the important work of redeeming their leadership roles. The two-volume set explains the fundamentals of board/staff roles, accountability, relations and governance (and much more) - and provides a range of implementation tools, such as board and officer job descriptions, board orientation materials, and more. Many EDs use Nonprofit-KnowHow as the first step with new board members to help them get started on the right foot from the get-go!