Heads Up!

A Good Board Wants to Hear the Bad News

Jan Portrait 3 (2)

If you run a nonprofit organization, you probably already know this: what your board doesn’t know can cause you big problems.

Recently, a long time Milwaukee nonprofit hit the front pages with the news that its board of directors had suspended operations after discovering serious financial problems. While the details are still unfolding, one thing is strongly implied. The board of directors seems to have been surprised.

Now what I’m going to say doesn’t pertain directly to this most current organization since we don’t yet know all the details. But I’ve been in both positions – nonprofit staff and nonprofit board and I speak from that experience.

Surprises aren’t always bad. Boards love surprises like news of a big grant or receipt of a national award. Those are great surprises.

Financial problems, personnel messes, program issues – those are all surprises that boards don’t love. Surprise is the key word here.

A good board wants to hear the bad news. The problem is that, too often, the staff doesn’t want to tell the board bad news. So they omit negative things from board reports, gloss over problems or take the posture that the issue is too complex for the board to understand. Minimizing problems marginalizes the board. And board members don’t like that. They joined a board of directors to be involved, helpful and smart. Board members want their talents and resources to be used, otherwise, they think: why am I here?

When an organization hums along with routine, boring board meetings where critical issues are rarely discussed in any real depth and then something blows the lid off a problem, say, a very bad audit or inability to make payroll, board members tend to get very upset. They feel duped. They feel like staff purposely kept them in the dark. They lose trust in the staff. And that is a terrible thing for a nonprofit. Distrust between board and staff can sink the entire enterprise.

Trust is built on honesty, communication and solving problems together. Strong, effective boards reflect strong, effective staff’s commitment to sharing the good news and the bad news with no extra varnish. Just the facts. Look around at the most successful organizations. This is what they’re doing: making sure the board of directors is always totally in the know.

How healthy is your board staff relationship? Maybe time to do a little check-up!


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