A Little Help

If nothing else, my recent Achilles’ tendon injury is providing some good food for thought (and blog posts). One obvious effect of being on crutches is that I can’t do everything I used to: driving is right out, going long distances on foot is not an option (and even a short trip outside is dicey given icy sidewalks), and transporting anything that can’t fit in a backpack won’t be happening. At the same time, there are some things I can still do, but I have to ask myself: should I be using up my limited energy and risk further injury? It’s been a learning curve for me to realize that sometimes it’s better to take up an offer of help even if I could theoretically do it myself.

Earlier this week I was having a conversation about the role of non-profit boards of directors and realized the same lesson could easily apply, especially to relatively young and growing organizations. As a non-profit experiences some initial success, starts developing a structure, and becomes incorporated, its founders often become the initial members of the board. At this stage, even when the organization has a staffperson or the resources to contract someone for certain tasks, the board members may be tempted to do the work themselves. Although well-intentioned, this approach can lead to underutilizing the organization’s resources and wasting the time of the board.

As an example, one board I sat on a few years ago was coming out of a time of change and had recently hired a new executive director. At one of our meetings we were talking about an upcoming event and the discussion turned to the relative merits of various floral shops to supply flowers for this event. One of my colleagues on the board became a bit exasperated at this point and asked (quite rightly in my opinion) why we were spending time talking about flowers when we had a capable staff person who could look into the various options and provide a recommendation or even go ahead with a decision? From that point on, whenever our board meetings started going in the direction of doing work that could easily be delegated to our ED or volunteers, somebody would crack a joke about flowers as a reminder of where to spend our time and energy.

There’s a dichotomy between “working boards” that get more involved in day-to-day operations and “strategic boards” with a focus on the bigger picture: a board may play either role through its lifetime as the situation dictates. Regardless of what role it’s currently playing, a board is made up of a finite number of people with finite time and energy, and as an organization and its activities and responsibilities grow, it can only do so much. That’s not to say that board members shouldn’t be contributing their specific expertise or skills for the betterment of the organization. However, just like I’ve had to reach out to others for help with tasks that I could theoretically do myself, a board should likewise take a good look at where it should spend its time and energy and don’t hesitate to ask someone else for a hand when needed.

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