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How Board Members Pull Good Work Off Course

As I talk to people who are at the innovative edge of philanthropy and resident-centered investing, here's a question I often ask:

What pulls you off course?

I came up with that question because I've seen so much good work over the years get pulled off course or go completely in the ditch, never to be seen again.

In my earlier blog posts, I've written about two of the big things that pull the best-intentioned funders off course - forgetting about core identity and not thinking enough about who's doing the work. I want to throw out another, more sticky/tricky one here. Board members.

I heard about board members a number of times, but most clearly remember one person who said, without having to think more than a second, that her foundation's board members are one of her biggest challenges. She said that her board loved the foundation's small grants program - they loved hearing about the ideas that came in and seeing what happened. They said that it was some of the best and most important work that they foundation was doing. So, what was the pull that could take their favorite work off course?

It was their over-eagerness to help and their naivete about their own understanding of the problems that the community residents were attempting to solve. The example that I remember was about snow shovels. A group had requested a modest grant for some snow shovels that could be used by people in their neighborhood to shovel snow. One very excited board member made a motion to increase the amount of the grant so that the group could buy a snow-blower instead of the snow shovels, assuming that the request was about snow removal and nothing else. After all, he had a snow-blower and found it to be a much more efficient way to remove snow than the back-breaking and more time consuming work of snow shoveling.

The grant was made for snow shovels, but only because 1) the program officer was in the room, with full permission to be part of the conversation about grants, 2) the program officer was able to explain that the group were intentional about their choice of snow shovels over a snow blower. They understood that many shovels would allow many people to be shoveling. They chose shovels because shovels don't break down, need gasoline, special instructions, liability insurance or a locked garage. They wanted snow shovels as the more community-friendly option. Their request was indeed about snow removal, but it was just as much about what they could manage, what could be the most accessible to the most people, and what made the most sense to them. It was about community.

I heard a lot about boards in my years with Grassroots Grantmakers. There were board members who challenged the validity of a small grants program because they couldn't imagine much happening with small amounts of money. They focused on the things that the grant dollars were buying vs. the intent of the activity that the grant was supporting. "We're buying t-shirts?" I heard from staff members who were not allowed to attend board meetings, and thus missed opportunities to challenge the well-intentioned snow-blower decision or the "we're buying t-shirts" criticism. I experienced these same challenges in my own work.

I also heard about pressure from board members to "prove it". This pressure comes in the most well-meaning and responsible package - making sure that the board is doing its job as good stewards of the funder's financial resources. The problem about prove it pressure is complicated.

Sometimes, the prove it demand is based on some mismatched assumptions about investing in community residents and the associational groups that they form to get things done. If the expectation is about how many widgets are produced, how many services are provided, how much progress is being made in turning informal groups into staffed non-profit organizations, or how beginning efforts are impacting policy, you have a real problem on your hands. These are all assumptions or expectations that might be appropriate for some other types of grantmaking, but not what I'm talking about here.

If the prove it question is grounded in a good understanding of why the funder is investing in residents - growing social capital and community connectedness, changing perceptions about what is possible, discovering and cultivating new leaders, expanding circles of involvement, AND doing something concrete about problems that residents identify as important - the question is still difficult to answer. Well-constructed evaluations can be conducted that provide evidence that investing in growing resident voice and power is smart and even essential for community well-being and vibrancy. But, as mentioned by more than one foundation executive, the costs in both time and money associated with doing such an evaluation can over-shadow the amount of money the funder is actually investing in that area.

So, what did I hear about handling this challenge other than confronting off-course pulls on the spot? A number of people talked about the importance of two things: 1) thinking hard about board composition, with the goal of having a board that includes different types of people who bring different perspectives and life experiences, and 2) devoting considerable time and attention on a regular basis to board member engagement and education.

More board diversity in itself is important. But I think that board diversity plus an organizational culture that expects board members to be engaged outside of board meetings, and welcomes board outsiders (including staff) into the deliberation and decision-making circle goes a long way to ensuring that there is on-going attention to board member engagement and education.


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