The nonprofit board model shouldn’t endure – yet it does

Organizations today need boards that provide critical thinking, create a learning culture and serve as dynamic ambassadors

A good friend of mine refers to the nonprofit board model as similar to a hive of bumblebees. In doing so, he quotes Igor Sikorsky, father of the modern-day helicopter, who, when referring to the ability of flying machines to take flight, said: “They are just like bumblebees. Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn’t know it, so it goes on flying anyway.”

Think about it.

The nonprofit board model requires that a group of volunteers, many of whom do not know each other nor possess expertise in the mission, come together and, through committee work and four to six full board meetings a year, assume the primary legal responsibility for governing the organization.

Without a vested interest, the nonprofit board shoulders the responsibility of charting the strategic vision and direction of the organization, safeguarding its assets, hiring and supporting the CEO, ensuring a clear fiscal plan is established and that resources are in place to meet objectives.

It’s a humbling role, and for many reasons, it shouldn’t – but does – endure.

One reason is history. By our century-old commitment to the model, we preserve the original intent of the nonprofit construct, which was to create a vehicle through which citizens could organize and mobilize resources to attend to human and community needs without the inherent conflict of a profit motive.

Dating back to the Revolutionary War, nonprofits emerged out of the desire of Americans to have the right to freely form groups of like-minded neighbors for the purpose of working together on issues that mattered to them and supported their pursuit of the quality of life they sought.

The nonprofit structure preserves this long-held American priority today as it continues to ensure that the voice of the community is at the table.

The second reason has to do with the inspiration strong nonprofit leaders are bringing to the plate.

Thirty years ago, many nonprofit executives were placed in leadership positions virtually overnight. One day you were a savvy program director with leadership tendencies, and the next day you were CEO. Today, many of these managers have evolved into outstanding entrepreneurial leaders, and others entering the leadership strata bring dynamic new approaches.

Leaders such as Maureen Beauregard of Families in Transition, Scot Henley from the Mount Washington Observatory, Nikki Clarke from the Capitol Center for the Arts and Lisa Dennison at the NHSPCA, as well as hundreds of others around the state, know how to team with their boards for outstanding results.

Extraordinary boards

The third, less visible reason for the nonprofit board’s longevity is that most of us are on an ongoing journey for purpose, for doing something meaningful with our time on earth.

We continue to believe that our communities and country can do better, be more equitable, and take on the truly difficult issues – and that we have a role to play.

The truth of the matter is that the board model will endure because people, both young and old, are interested in making a difference through volunteer leadership roles.

The challenge before us isn’t that the board model per se doesn’t work or that boards are failing due to lack of training and education.

An entire industry has cropped up over the past 20 years providing education on governance, fundraising, strategic planning and board development. Volumes of books, webinars and online resources are available with the click of a mouse.

Our challenge is to re-conceptualize the model. The issues facing today’s nonprofit boards require meetings that aren’t mechanical, committees that are not simply task-oriented, openness to diverse partners, and fund development that isn’t focused on the same small pond.

Today’s nonprofits need boards that provide critical thinking, create a learning culture and serve as dynamic ambassadors. Boards of the 21st century need to be a source of leadership, not simply oversight. Extraordinary boards do two things: they build a strong team culture, and they focus on work that has great meaning to the organization.

As expert and author Dr. Cathy Trower puts it, “Boards need to do better work, not simply work better.”

There is ample and exciting work ahead for nonprofit boards that will require some heavy lifting by all of us and openness to change. The bottom line is that the volunteer governance board model will endure, but the needs of our community are too important for any nonprofit board to fly like a bumblebee “by the seat of its pants.”

Today’s boards must fly in bolder, more purposeful ways.

Mary Ellen Jackson, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, can be reached at 603-225-1947.