Why is that we've arrived at the place where so many of people consider the term "dysfunctional non-profit board" as a redundancy? Especially when so many non-profits are struggling to survive and their communities value them more than ever. From a group design perspective, board dysfunction is both an unnecessary and talent-wasteful practice to continue.
One of the most common indicators of really poor board design is when boards "look forward to the new board president,” incorrectly thinking that a change in leadership could possibly compensate for poor board design.
Following the design principle that "things always perform the way they're designed to perform,” the only way for a board to perform better is to better design the structure and functionality of the board. Then, when a board is better designed, a new good leader will more easily and successfully contribute great value to the board's capacity and performance.
So, we need to radically rethink the design of boards. We need to end the practice of boards as committees more interested in rules than resilience, and more obsessed with structure than engagement.
We need to start thinking of boards as thriving aspiration, asset, and action networked boards.
In a networked board architecture, the board would be comprised of a thriving network of aspiration, assets, and actions, organized by a core team. The core team is a network-elected group of 6-8 people, with continuity-friendly terms, that sustains the legal and fiscal responsibilities of a 501.c organization.
The primary work of the core team is to grow the capacity, impact, and agility of the board’s network.
The network would include key organizational stakeholders, community entrepreneurs and experts committed to the organization's success, interested community members, volunteers, and even funders, investors, and other non-profit partners. As with any healthy network, anyone can join the network and leave the network at any time.
The work of the core team is to continuously invite people, groups, and organizations into the board’s network who would be able and willing to contribute value to the thrivability of the organization in the currencies of tangible and intangible assets.
These assets include ideas, talent, resources, funds, and connections. Not only would the core team invite people into the network, everyone in the network is expected to invite other people and assets into the network.
As an aspiration network, the network would continuously inspire the core team, organization, and the network with long and short term vision. As an asset network, the network would engage and grow the kinds of assets that could help realize these aspirations. As an action network, the network would engage people in projects that would add value to the success and thrivancy of the organization.
The core team of the board grows and weaves the network, so that it is an ever-evolving network of compelling vision, rich with diverse assets, and engaged in new ways to grow the organization and the network. This replaces the structure of “board committees” that manage to exclude resources and engagement outside the board and to spend more trying to get to consensus than to incubate rich ecologies of diverse projects.
The purpose of the board's core team and network is to complement the organization's assets. Where the organization needs financial, legal, strategic, marketing, fundraising, or volunteer assets, it now has a core team and the network to engage the network's assets. This eliminates the capacity constraints of the board. How would you like to be a non-profit with a board whose asset constraints are not an issue?
Compared to traditionally designed boards, networked boards are incredibly more inclusive, agile, and innovative. A networked board increase the chances that non-profits will become more collaborative, resource-wise, and strategic than ever before.
Of course this approach will only be embraced by only the most strategic and visionary non-profit boards. Once more of them engage and prove the model, it will hopefully become the norm, and we will see more non-profits thrive as community investment organizations.