The False Dichotomy Between Being a Working Board or a Governing Board

Small nonprofit boards sometimes characterize themselves as working boards. This terminology is misleading. Members of any board, no matter the size or maturity of the nonprofit, need to work. What a working board really refers to is a board whose members perform day-to-day tasks as unpaid staff for the nonprofit because it doesn’t have the financial resources to hire professionals to perform these functions, typically in finance, marketing and development.

While there is nothing wrong with board members performing these tasks, the characterization of a working board as opposed to a governing board is false. All governing boards, no matter how large their professional staff is, must work too. By work, I mean board members must attend meetings and events, engage in committee work, be ambassadors and advocates, participate in financial resource development and more.

Even if we choose the term operational instead of working, this still causes confusion if board members think they can just focus on the day-to-day operations.  All nonprofits must have a governing board that carries out the nonprofit’s legal duties and acts as fiduciaries. Governing boards provide the leadership of the organization, sets strategic direction and policy, provide financial oversight, ensure adequate resources, and hire, evaluate and support the executive. Accordingly, operational boards must also govern unless there is a separate governing board. For the vast majority of nonprofits, being an operational board or a governing board is not an either or proposition. 

Carrying out both roles as governing board and operational board can be challenging. Separating the spheres and managing the tensions using what I call the 3 P’s  — policies, procedures, and practices can help.

One of the most common misconceptions about operational boards is they do not have to fundraise because they function as unpaid staff or conversely, that governing boards do not have to fundraise because they have paid development professionals. WRONG! Both working and governing boards must be engaged in financial resource development for the nonprofit to thrive.

Effective governance starts with proper understanding of the board’s duties as a body and individual board members appreciating and accepting their roles and responsibilities. Leaders should be intentional in the language to characterize their board and clearly lay out expectations to ensure performance and attention to both the day-to-day and governance matters.

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for mission driven organizations. She is a frequent speaker, trainer, workshop presenter and facilitator. Nanette is the author of “On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service.” She can be reached at fridmanstrategies@gmail.com

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