An Imperative for Nonprofit Boards: The Time is Now to Step Up Your Game

This piece originally appeared on BoardSource’s Exceptional Boards blog.

Over the years, I’ve had the great privilege of serving on a wide range of boards — from early stage startup companies to large, established nonprofits — and have observed firsthand the variety of hats we board members can wear. The role of board member compels us to be diligent in our roles as fiduciaries, but that’s just the beginning of our responsibilities. We also need to be champions of and networkers for the organizations we serve. And, particularly in a world where change is accelerating and disruption is becoming the norm, we also need to step up and challenge the organizations we care so much about.

Drop into the average board meeting as an observer and you’ll be quick to spot the fiduciary at work, or the helpful board member offering up valuable insights or supportive compliments. What might be harder to spot is the “fearless challenger” in the mix. And this is for a good reason: Quite commonly, board members view their role as “protector” of the organization, legally bound to ensure the longevity and solvency of their organization. For some, this mandate is a call to exercise an abundance of caution and focus on risk mitigation — in essence, do what they can to be sure bad things don’t happen. But, while of course that’s important, it’s incomplete. Today’s board members have to go further, and challenge the organization to be sure good things happen, too.

Earlier this year, BoardSource released Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 2015 in which chief executives and board chairs used BoardSource’s 10 basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards — including mission, financial oversight and strategy — to assess their board’s performance. The result was a disappointing B- average, reflecting “responsible, but not necessarily exceptional, performance.” The Leading with Intent survey found that boards have a particularly difficult time adapting and adjusting to change, noting that “boards do well at functions related to compliance and oversight, but face challenges with their strategic and external work.”

Given the critical role boards play in influencing and guiding the work of social sector organizations, when it comes to performance, anything less than exceptional is simply unacceptable. Underpinning all of our fiduciary and legal responsibilities on the boards we serve is the need to help our organizations adapt, innovate and…change.

We live in a world where the pace of change is unprecedented. It’s not just the old organizations that have to reinvent their ways of doing business to keep pace, even new and highly successful organizations such as Google, Facebook and Amazon routinely adapt their structures, their practices and even their workforce to stay relevant and ensure they are well poised for the future or adapting to new market opportunities as they emerge.

In the social sector, many of the organizations we serve are on the front lines of the world’s most pressing challenges where the “same old way of doing things” is simply not an option. As noted in the Leading with Intent report, this assessment should serve as a wake-up call for boards. If we want to move from a B- to an A+, we all have work to do. We must understand that while risk mitigation is important, it’s also important to push the organizations we serve to try new things, experiment and challenge the status quo. Often for an organization to stay nimble, it needs to feel it has the backing of its board to take some risks and be bold. If we, as board members, don’t provide the requisite “air cover” to encourage risk taking, we are not really serving the organizations’ long-term interests.

Through time there have been many examples of organizations we can learn from that missed the mark on these fronts. Shouldn’t Kodak have brought us Instagram? Shouldn’t Blockbuster have brought us Netflix? Instead, they were utterly disrupted by these upstarts. These companies didn’t have their heads in the sand — they were aware of the upstart challenges — but they didn’t organize and prioritize to meet the challenge. They were taking what they thought was the safe route, and it turned out to be the risky route. They were stuck playing defense, when they needed to play offense.

If we are privileged to serve in board roles then we need to be bold enough to ask the hard questions and challenge the organizations we are there to support. In this period of great disruption and change, it is imperative that boards don’t just focus on the current operations, but also keep an eye toward the future — and make room for the necessary strategic conversations about the future.

How can these ideas be put into practice? Here are three specific suggestions:

  • Ask your CEO to highlight “threats and opportunities” as a routine part of board sessions, not just report out on current operations. On this point, remember that often everything is fine until it is not, so relying just on current operating activities without an eye on the broader landscape can represent its own “head in the sand” risk.
  • Make sure someone at the table is routinely asking, “How is the landscape around us changing, and are we adapting fast enough to meet these challenges and leverage new opportunities?” If you don’t have board members asking these questions already, you can “assign” this role to a given board member or members to ensure that the requisite conversation takes place. This “designated hitter” approach (often via a lead director) offers a safe and effective method to put on the table what some board members are really thinking or questioning, but often don’t feel comfortable to be the first to put forth. By openly “assigning” this role at the start of dialogue, a CEO can get the “unspoken” issues on the table.
  • Ask the CEO what she/he needs to ensure that the organization’s future can be ensured, and strengthened. As a board, be prepared to listen carefully to the answer to this question. All too often budgets are prepared under the assumption of what the board expects. What the board really needs to know is what the CEO really thinks the right path forward should be — not what the CEO thinks the board wants to hear, or might readily approve.

By formally inviting an all-cards-on-the-table conversation, board members can be candid and honest in providing feedback, without worrying that their suggestions or critiques might be viewed as unsupportive. This kind of dialogue can help build trust and a sense that “we are all in this together,” which can go a long way to furthering the goals of the board and the organization.

Last year, I had the privilege of speaking at the BoardSource Leadership Forum about why we all need to Be Fearless in the social sector. I laid out the five key principles that typically are present when organizations or movements achieve transformative breakthroughs. The response was overwhelming, as I heard from many in the community afterwards about what they were already doing in line with the Be Fearless principles, or what they were inspired to do moving forward.

Since then, we have been working closely with practitioners in the field to improve our Be Fearless Framework for Action. We heard from many of you what worked and what didn’t, and as a result we’ve revamped the tools, to make them more useful — including adding more ways to assess your organization and identify opportunities for increasing your impact.

I invite you to check out the new Framework at — and hope you will let me know what you think about it so we can continue to improve it.

Being the fearless one in the room — especially the boardroom — is never easy, but it is necessary if we are going to fully support individuals and organizations that will create the transformative change the world needs. These ideas may seem foreign to some, given the traditional boardroom dynamics that are so commonplace, but they are grounded in real-world examples and best-in-class practices that yield results…results the world cannot wait for any longer.

Jean Case is CEO of the Case Foundation, and serves in a number of board roles, including: the National Geographic Board of Trustees; Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2); SnagFilms; BrainScope Company, Inc.; and the White House Historical Association. In addition, she is also a member of several advisory boards, including: Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation; Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative; and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.