Nonprofit Boards Need to Reform for Staff Sake

Mixed race group of adults meet with computers around a rectangular table. Photo by fauxels on

Over the past few months, several friends have confided in me about how bad their nonprofit CEOs are behaving. The nonprofits are in different parts of the US and with friends who don’t know each other. In each of these very different situations, the employees didn’t feel like they had a way to have their complaints heard without losing their jobs. It is time for the nonprofit sector to reform board structures to represent employees’ needs more openly and fully.

I’ve worked for or volunteered for nonprofit organizations for most of my professional life. I’ve been part of large nonprofits to small organizations, including one where I was the sole staff for about six months. All of these organizations had a board of directors. Many of the boards governing the nonprofits I worked for were well run and took their roles as board members thoughtfully and seriously. I also serve on nonprofit boards and understand my role there.

One of the problems I now see is boards are not there to represent staff. Boards are currently designed to have one person to manage – the executive. This is a fail-safe to make sure staff do not have multiple people giving them instructions. Boards are also there to ensure the mission of the organization stays on track overall, not to be in the day-to-day activities of an organization.

Yet, listening to my friends, I could sense how demoralized they felt by having to work under mismanagement. My friends had very few conduits to report the mismanagement that were ‘safe.’ They didn’t feel like they could talk to board members without the risk of being ‘ratted out’ to the Executive Director who had a reputation for firing people for lesser offenses. It made me realize we need to reform nonprofit board governance to ensure we’re holding nonprofit executives accountable to the mission, inclusive of staff feedback.

Many of the board practices we use today were inherited from institutional practices designed to protect whiteness. We need to adapt nonprofit practices to embrace changing workforce needs. As the US shifts its demographics more POCs will enter nonprofit workforces, a good thing. And we need to recognize a lot of nonprofit leaders come from dominant trait backgrounds. I’m being purposeful in saying dominant trait backgrounds, since many POC leaders may fall into these categories – college educated, English literate, able to navigate bureaucracies and power structures, access to powerful networks of people – which helps leaders gain success. The danger comes when leaders are not accountable back to the staff and clients of an organization.

Many people will say staff and boards shouldn’t interact with each other. I believe there is a fallacy in there. Good relationships based on trust and professionalism can be healthy. Care needs to be taken to ensure both sides understand their roles and how to process conflicts and disagreements in productive ways. There will be a few cases where a disgruntled employee may have choice words to share, but I also believe reasonable people can figure out which feedback is valid and which is bogus. Such as if there is a pattern to the complaints is there something to pay attention to? Is the complaint personal or pointing out systemic failures within the organization? Have the staff tried to resolve the problem at lower levels and escalate it to the board because their problems have been ignored?

I also want to note there will be times when POC staff will bring up concerns that are racialized. It is extra important that these complaints are not ignored. They need to be handled promptly. If your board receives these complaints and is unsure how to handle them, ask for help from professionals (while maintaining the confidentiality of the staff member who brought you the complaint).

Boards also need to be ready to actively listen, investigate fairly, and manage an executive when negative feedback arises. Too often boards are loyal to an executive and explain away bad behavior rather than coach, manage, or if needed terminate an executive. I’ve seen a lot of nonprofits lose a lot of momentum and clients suffer because boards did not act quickly enough to manage executives who were poor managers. The staff, clients, and cause suffered unduly.

Instituting practices such as 360-Reviews, creating and promoting confidential ways for staff to provide feedback or report misconduct and have it acted upon, and other practices can help to ensure there is accountability of executives.

In order for nonprofits to evolve boards need to evolve with them.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.