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The Nonprofit Strategist

To Whom Is Your Board Accountable?

The answer to this question might seem obvious, but surprisingly, it often isn't so clear.

Judith Millesen's Who "Owns" Your Nonprofit? post reappeared in Nonprofit Quarterly last week, and I had to smile. I remember--some 12 years ago or more--quoting her three key recommendations at a strategic planning session I was facilitating with a religious congregation:

  1. Make explicit the moral ownership group to whom the board is accountable.

  2. Establish a clear mission that articulates a commitment to the moral ownership–the group for whom the organization exists.

  3. Establish a connection with the ownership.

It might seem odd that a religious congregation's board might need to review the topic, but they did. Was the board accountable to the religious mission, or to its membership? Was there a difference? What about members with different interests, perspectives and beliefs? And so the conversation went. 

As a board member and as a consultant both, I've learned over the years that it is always worthwhile to post "board accountability" as an agenda item--at least once a year, and more often if there is a lack of clarity. I have found that Board members are often well meaning but frequently unclear about how they are accountable. Worse, there is even more often a lack of consensus on the topic, which can lead to conflict and misunderstanding.

I've come to realize that this is just simply a normal state of affairs. Folks come from all walks of life and experience to a moment in time when they want to lead, want to "be on a board." They might have a variety of reasons for serving, but sometimes they simply don't have the visceral understanding they need.

So how do you fix this? Talk about it. From a process point of view, it couldn't be simpler. Just put the topic on your next board agenda, and plan on re-posting it annually. You don't have to wait for your annual retreat. Naturally, you'll want to review your on-boarding process, too, but the point is you don't have to go bonkers. Just talk it through! You'll be glad you did.