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Eugene Fram Headshot

Should Mature Nonprofits Allow Board Micromanagement?

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Accepted View of Micromanagement: "...Directors spend more time with the details of the operations instead of planning its short-term and long-term growth strategies. ...

The Need for a Micromanaging Board
Board micromanagement is an appropriate approach when a nonprofit is in a start-up stage. Financial and human resources are modest, and the volunteer directors must assume some responsibilities normally executed by compensated staff. The chief executive often has managerial responsibilities as well as a list of clients to service. It is not unusual to promote a person who is only familiar with direct service to become the first chief executive of the organization. In turn , this neophyte manager has to depend on board members for managerial counsel and direction. A culture of board dependency is created out of necessity.

Problems Arise
The micromanaging board is a worthy model for smaller nonprofits that stay at a start-up level for a long time. Some nonprofits retain this governance model, with its dependency relationships, long after it is needed. Example: One nonprofit I encountered required its department heads to first discuss major issues with designated board members before reviewing them with the chief executive, e.g., the program manager follows instructions of the board program committee chair.

Major Organizational Impacts Of Continuing Micromanagement
• Management and staffs wait for board signals or instructions before taking action. One CEO reported: "I give the board options and let them choose the course of action." Implication: I don't want the responsibility for the action chosen. The board told me to take it.
• It's more difficult to hire talented managers with these types of organizations. Most, from CEO down, are "C" players. They fear "A" and "B" players and then hire more "C" players like themselves. More qualified personnel may reject offers.
• Management & staff just don't have the "right stuff" to be creative. They don't properly question authority. Boards are shown great deference.
• Impacts and outcomes at best are minimal, but this is not readily recognized by the community or sponsoring organization. As long as income meets expenses each year, the board does not note any long-term red flags.

Changing the Culture -- The Important Issue
Governance and management changes do not occur easily when an organization has maintained a micromanagement culture well beyond the start-up period. Following are some ways that I have seen changes take place.
• Several forward-looking members of the board, including the chair, develop a plan to seek change. Opinion leaders or well-respected veterans must be included.
• Over time, often a year or more, a change plan is developed and then formally adopted by the board. This usually involves giving the chief executive full responsibility for operations, along with a robust annual assessment of the CEO and operations.
• During the process, all stakeholders must be informed about the proposed changes, and the reasons for change. Naysayers will quietly spread internal and external rumors about it. Actual Example: "We will be losing our family culture and our great interpersonal relationships."
• The CEO must be in favor of the changes to be instituted. If not, the board needs to wait until the CEO retires or leaves. Of course, the board can terminate the CEO, but this will certainly lead to conflict with the staff and the stakeholder constituency he/s has developed.
• When a new CEO is engaged, make certain the person has a desire and some experience to manage and the interpersonal skills to relate to the staff at its current state.
• Some members of the board will become "displaced directors," persons cemented to the older order. Look for them to resign quietly and/or take potshots at the new governance-management arrangement. Actual Example: In one organization, when the traditional ED title for the chief executive was abandoned and the title President /CEO instituted, a board member derisively questioned, "Do we call him 'Presco' ?"

The tendency of nonprofit boards to micromanage organizational operations is still prevalent. In fact, it appears to be part of the NP DNA! With the huge problems confronting nonprofits, it's high time for a 21stcentury culture change!