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Mistakes are the stepping stones to learning

Many good books have been written about effective board governance and what pitfalls to avoid. (The excellent Governance as Leadership, published by Boardsource, is one of In Trust's favorites.) But rarely is such good advice offered so clearly, concisely, and effectively as I found in this next piece.

Ellis McGehee Carter, an Arizona nonprofit lawyer, made a small splash in the nonprofit world with a top-ten list of "Non-profit Board Governance Mistakes." On each of the points below, she offers a short paragraph of explanation. It's worth a few minutes of your time. On face value, they seem to be common sense. But when knee-deep in board work, sometimes the obvious can be obfuscated by the organizational fog.

So what does she see as the top ten mistakes board regularly make?

  1. Failing to understand fiduciary duties.
  2. Failing to provide effective oversight. 
  3. Deference to the executive committee, board chair or the organization's founder. 
  4. Micro-managing staff. 
  5. Avoiding the hard questions.
  6. Insufficient conflict management. 
  7. Lack of awareness of laws governing tax-exempts. 
  8. Operating with outdated, inconsistent governing documents. 
  9. Airing disagreements outside the boardroom. 
  10. Failure to cultivate board diversity.

When this came out in September, another nonprofit lawyer, Gene Takagi of Nonprofit Law Blog, suggested five more "Top Ten" mistakes:

  1. Recruiting and selecting board members without due care.
  2. Failing to educate and motivate board members.
  3. Failing to document actions appropriately.
  4. Failing to review program effectiveness and efficiency and take appropriate follow-up actions.
  5. Failing to hold executives (and nonparticipating directors) accountable.

This list only reinforces for us that board membership and leadership require personal discipline, commitment, and continual effort for organizational improvement. Otherwise, we may be doing more harm than good.


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