“How Nonprofit Boards Actually Solve Problems”

Case Study by Clay Montague

First of all, I have not served on the board of the Satilla Riverkeeper organization, but rather, at the request of the board, I stepped in from the general membership as a volunteer interim executive director and Satilla Riverkeeper. This was in February 2012. I had been a member of the organization since 2005, had been an occasional science contact for the first and second Satilla Riverkeepers, and had only briefly met a few board members at barbecues. I had never attended the annual gala, and had only recently moved to the area after retiring from the University of Florida. I still do not know why I was asked, but I served.

As I began to learn about the organization from the inside, I discovered something about board decision-making and the relationship of board and staff that impacted decisions. We had, as it turned out, a well-known problem among nonprofit organizations, which I'll mention more about in a minute. However, the solution process that occurred, and is still developing for us, may not be so well-known. I'm not an expert in these matters. It's only from this one experience that I can make the following observations and comments that I hope can be helpful to other boards. But first, a little background:

Important to understand: when I stepped in, it soon seemed to me that the organization was on the verge of complete failure. It had $50,000 in debt, about $300 in the bank, unpaid utility bills, overdue reports, unfulfilled contracts and grants, and no contract for the office space occupied apparently rent free. At the first board meeting I attended (the one where I was to be introduced as the new guy to run the show), only two board members were
present. I asked what the service was that the Satilla Riverkeeper provided. Neither could say. I did not quit that evening for reasons that I still wonder about.

Also important to understand: we got through this tough time.We are now debt free and have a substantial nest egg in the bank. We have an inspired and active board under the direction of its Chair, Ms. Kathi Murray, and we have an exciting fulltime Riverkeeper and Executive Director, Ms. Ashby Nix. We are once again becoming the premier force for the environment of southeastern Georgia, impressive to funding foundations and to our general membership alike, as we perform our mission to protect, restore, and educate about the beautiful and ecologically unique Satilla River. Along the way, I had a few realizations relevant both to how boards create problems an how they solve them.

My first realization: The road to the catastrophic situation we were in was well known in the realm of nonprofits. Both the Nonprofit Handbook by Gary Grobman and a board training lecture by Dr. Chris Allers of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits described our situation to a "T" without any knowledge of our organization. The Satilla Riverkeeper had been built into a powerful force by its original, charismatic, highly effective executive director and Riverkeeper. The board did not have to learn the business of the organization. It seemed to me that the board had not been faced with actually wrestling in depth with tough business management decisions because those had always been handled by this leader. His recommendations may have been duly considered and followed, but perhaps without much critique or insight. When that leader moved on to another organization, the board did not know how to mind the store. When store-minding became necessary, it was ineffective to prevent a near disastrous condition. Tough store-minding decisions could have made a crucial difference. We are left to imagine the possible impact, for example, had the board made the very tough decision to refuse to go into debt.

Although the board enjoyed the reputation of a truly effective force for the environment, when it came to business matters, it seemed to respond only after the complete loss of leadership upon the resignation of its chosen executive director and Riverkeeper. And even this response seemed poorly executed, judging from the mess I found. Past searches for replacement leaders seemed inexperienced and delegated to staff. Response to loss of leadership, however, was a feature of this board that eventually had to be used to cause a dramatic change in how the board did the business of finding an executive director and Riverkeeper. That change seems to have been a key turning point for our board.

When the finances finally allowed me to advertise for a new fulltime Riverkeeper and Executive Director, the ad went out nationally to about thirty job-posting sites, and 28 strong applications were received. To my delight, the board rallied around reviewing the applicants and making a selection. Board members responded like I had not seen before. But I had to resign my interim position before that would happen.

Nevertheless, since that turning point, the board has begun to tackle other important tasks never before done so independently of the paid staff. They updated the bylaws, developed certain specific written policies and committees, received some formal board member training, and began work on a strategic planning process. They have begun to develop programs to involve both kids and the general membership in various river appreciation activities. Our board may now be one of the most effective nonprofit boards in southeastern Georgia, if not the whole state.

Now for a second realization: boards are dynamic. When times get tough, board members can turn over rapidly. This turnover appeared to be part of the solution process. In fact, although a few members resigned for personal reasons after a period of little or no contribution, and maybe one or two resigned because of the seeming impending demise of the organization with considerable debt, several members resigned immediately after making very significant contributions that helped turn the organization around! These members seemed to be worn down by the frustrations of working with other board members to make difficult choices and revisions to bylaws and policies. But they were effective and pushed the needed process forward. This phenomenon occurred not only in the revision of bylaws and policies, but also in the search for the new executive director.

Another realization: a board can be motivated to action. With sufficient motivation, a big, important task can be done by an inexperienced board. Board members are good people that have a strong interest in the success of the organization. In a crisis, people will draw on their own business and home management experience to solve the crisis, if they clearly have responsibility and ownership of the problem. Whether experienced or inexperienced, a key may be to convince board members of the crucial nature of the task and the necessity for the board to do it. Someone must push forward to setup the situation so the board must act. That someone could be a board member or executive director. It may take extreme measures, such as the resignation of key leaders, but that extreme measure can be used to create a turning point, by leaving key responsibility clearly in the hands of the board. In my case, I had to write the ad, and find the advertising outlets, but I made the board chair the contact person for applicants, and then I resigned.

Frustration breeds success. Working together on a common serious problem can lead to voiced disagreement, heated discussion, frustration, perhaps board turnover, but ultimately to success. My advice is to expect this, nurture a professional attitude toward it, and use it. Dancing around an issue to avoid hurting feelings seems just as ineffective as intentionally making a personal attack. We are all just people trying to help our organization work. For difficult problems, frustration and voiced disagreement seems to be a natural part of the process of finding a solution.

Here's something else that seemed to pay dividends: Learning of one another's easy abilities. Different board members have an odd collection of strengths, experiences, hobbies, and skills that they can bring to the organization. Other board members may not know about most of these. When I paid a personal, individual visit to several board members just to talk about their personal interest in the Satilla River and shoot the breeze, it seemed to re-involve them and help both of us identify those strengths and skills that they might have a fairly easy time contributing when needed. Our newspaper man has written newsletter stories, our admiral provided clear written policy revisions, our business franchise magnate led the review of executive director applicants, and our former elephant-trainer, now science teacher has invented the Satilla Stewards program for the kids in our watershed to get involved in the river.

Finally, I have realized the value of professional training for board members and staff. By letting us know that our organizational problems were not unique, have been studied by professionals, and have been solved before, training and continuing education has repaid many fold. These days, with so many nonprofits vying for limited funds, formal board training seems essential. Training can enhance board effectiveness enough for the organization to be noticed by funding foundations and general members alike and therefore to reach its full potential toward fulfilling its mission. Training can be required, in our case it was forced by contract requirements, the watchful eyes of funding foundations, our desperate financial situation, and the belief that board members could be held personally liable for debt.

Of course, executive director and riverkeeper training are also essential. The capacity for achieving the mission can be increased when board members participate in this same training too. We have received board and staff training lectures and generous one-on-one advice from the Georgia River Network, Georgia Center for Nonprofits, and the Foundation Center. The Waterkeeper Alliance offers Riverkeeper networking. Some good books are available that can be offered to all board members andExecutive Directors, and those with aspirations to be. Two favorites are The Nonprofit Handbook by Gary Grobman, and Friendraising by Hildy Gottleib. You may know of others you could mention.

In closing, thanks for the opportunity to tell the story of our journey into problems and out again. We've been able once again to thrive as an effective organization. I hope these realizations that I had during my singular experience can help you. But we are aware that our journey back is ongoing and incomplete. I wish you and us continued good luck!

Suggested Reading
Grobman, Gary. 2011. The Nonprofit Handbook: Everything You
Need to Know to Start and Run Your Nonprofit Organization, Sixth
edition. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: White Hat Communications.
421 pages.

Gottleib, Hildy. 2006. Friend Raising: Community Engagement
Strategies for Boards Who Hate Fundraising But Love Making
Friends. Tucson, Arizona: Renaissance Press. 209 pages.