Boards: “Good enough” is not good enough

by Jeff De Cagna on June 3, 2012

This is the inaugural post in a new regular feature on the P.I. Blog called “A Different View,” in which I will offer another perspective on a recent blog post or article I have read. These posts can be searched using the “#adifferentview” tag. As always, I invite you to share this post and add your comments below.

In a recent blog post, author Jacob Smith contends that it is okay for non-profit organizations to have “good enough” boards of directors. In contrast to the widely-held view that effective boards are critical to non-profit success, Jacob writes:

It is more likely that your board will either be well-meaning but inept or mediocre but dysfunctional. And because you’ve heard so many times about the importance of building a strong board— from the nonprofit management books, from your nonprofit management classes, from your peers and funders, from your own board members—you may feel a sense of urgency about making board development a top priority.

Get over it.

Jacob acknowledges that strong boards can help non-profits be more successful, but argues the “opportunity cost” of focusing on board development and management may not justify the time and work it requires. In the end, Jacob recommends an “optimization strategy” that balances the effort invested in building a stronger board with the value the board creates for the organization. As he puts it, “‘Good enough’ really is OK.”

A Different View

While I respect Jacob’s contrarian instinct, as an advisor to association boards and the current vice chair of a non-profit board, I disagree with his perspective, and question the wisdom of his advice. As the world moves faster and grows more complex, we need to get more serious, not less, about building association and non-profit boards capable of future-focused stewardship.

The critical issue we must confront is how to nurture boards willing to challenge their organizations to take their work to the next level and live up to sky-high stakeholder expectations for purposeful action and meaningful new value creation. To do this, we must require boards to raise their game as well. With traditional association business models continuing to face severe threats in the years ahead, association boards must set aside nostalgia and denial, and reassert their strategic legitimacy, or risk losing the support of the next generation of stakeholders.

It is true that developing an organizational mindset and capability for what I call “the new work of governing” can be a difficult and time-consuming process. And yet it is a responsibility we must accept and embrace. If we do not, the real opportunity cost will be felt most acutely when the failure to build strategically legitimate boards renders associations and non-profits ineffectual in the pursuit of purpose, and incapable of supporting stakeholders in the pursuit of their most important outcomes.

When it comes to boards, “good enough” is not good enough.

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