This big disconnect may be causing big problems.
What is the most important role of a cultural nonprofit board member? Is it the donation of their time, their professional skill set (talent), or their giving or securing monetary support (treasure)? We wanted to know, so IMPACTS asked board members and staff leaders at 49 different cultural organizations. And what did we find?
A big disconnect.
The popular maxim that nonprofit board members should, “Give [money], get [money], or get off [the board]” seems to have been around since the beginning of nonprofit time. But who holds this belief? And is this “treasure” truly the most valuable role of board members? Indeed, some seem to hold the belief that the donation of time and talent are equally valuable board contributions. Getting to the bottom of this is the topic of this week’s Fast Fasts video.
A recent study conducted by IMPACTS reveals that there is a perceptual delta between executive leadership and board members when it comes to assessing the primary asset that board members bring to their organizations. This is particularly the case among cultural entities serving fewer than one million annual visitors.
The survey sought to improve the understanding of the optimal role of the board as it relates to the governance and operations of contemporary cultural organizations. It includes staff leadership from 49 cultural organizations – and board members from these same organizations. The study sought to include a broad, representative sample of nonprofit organizations of various types, usage levels, and annual operating budgets. It includes aquariums, museums, performing arts organizations, and zoos.
This study is an update to a similar studied completed by IMPACTS in 2013. I published the findings here. The study revealed a problematic disconnect in 2013, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – that same disconnect exists in 2017 for organizations serving fewer than one million visitors.
Let’s dive in…
What do executive leaders believe is the most important role of board members?
Let’s start by taking a look at what staff leadership believe to be the optimal role of a board member. These are responses from the chiefs – CEOs, CFOs, and CMOs, for example.
“Treasure” dominates staff perspectives as the most important role of the board – regardless of the number of visitors served by each organization.
What staff leadership believes to be the most important role of the board matters. These leaders are intimately familiar with the whole gamut of challenges facing the organization – both strategic and logistical. They know an organization’s pain-points well, and they feel them every single day.
What do board members believe to be their most important function?
Now let’s take a look at what board members at these same institutions report as their most important function. For board members serving organizations with over one million visitors, the numbers reported are exactly the same as those reported by staff leadership! That’s great news!
The rest isn’t so great. Board members of organizations serving fewer than one million annual visitors reveal the start of an alarming disconnect. These numbers do not match what staff leaders believe to be the most important function for these organizations. The disconnect is troubling – but it is especially concerning for organizations serving fewer than 250,000 visitors. Donating and securing funds is not the leading priority for these board members nearly at all! Yikes!
This disconnect underscores an opportunity for clarity and growth.
Where do things stand overall? For board leadership, treasure is the clear leader. For board members it’s…a rather mixed and confusing bag.
This disconnect may not exist to such a degree within organizations serving more than one million annual visitors because bigger organizations often generally attract wealthier board members than smaller ones. It may be that board members at smaller organizations are less likely to report that their biggest contribution is a thing that they cannot as easily give (or get) as they may have a less wealthy peer group. I’m not sure. Regardless, board and staff should be in alignment with regard to what an organization needs most.
These results don’t intend to imply that all three of these contributions (time, talent, treasure) aren’t important! Simply, they illustrate that a disconnect exists – even within the same organization – about which is the most important. This means that there may be a disconnect about an organization’s primary needs.
In my opinion, it’s hard to argue with financial support being a primary function. After all, these organizations are all nonprofits, and securing donors is a constant struggle. As data suggest, wealthy donors are less likely to give to organizations with boards that are not financially committed. After all, if an organization’s board members – those folks most engaged by the organization and strategically involved in its success and mission – do not care to make meaningful individual contributions, why the heck should anybody else?
But then again, I have my own bias. I am on the board of directors at the National Aquarium, a visitor-serving organization that serves well over one million visitors, and so the importance of giving meaningfully is constantly reinforced and communicated – and we understand it. It’s a part of our board culture and that aspect of our culture grows stronger each year. I recognize that this may not be the case for other boards. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to their respective executive leadership teams to decide.
I can anticipate the emails and Facebook comments now: “TIME is obviously most important!” “TALENT is what I bring to my organization and that’s what they need most – even if they don’t realize it!” These reactions miss the point. It doesn’t matter what is the “right” role of the board. (Or even my own assessment that it is/should be “treasure” for many organizations – and this doesn’t wholly exclude “time” and “talent” as valuable contributions, too.) Indeed, priorities may very well vary by institution. What matters is that there’s a disconnect – and that executive leaders and board members are not on the same page about what their organization needs most.
I believe that there are many reasons for these different numbers. I believe that those reasons may or may not be perfectly valid reasons. The point is that these mismatches and misunderstandings exist – and they shouldn’t.
The takeaway of these data may underscore two, important action items:
- There may be an opportunity for executive staff leadership and board members to work together to align their understandings of what an organization needs most from its board members.
- Once this decision is reached, there may be an opportunity to better communicate this priority, and to make sure that the need for this donation (of time, talent, or giving/getting treasure) is clearly communicated among current board members, and underscored when courting potential, new board members.
Staff leadership may have a better grasp of pain points, regardless of what they are. These data are difficult to communicate to board members because, well, they arguably maintain the misunderstanding. Also, they symbolically run the place. That’s why this disconnect may be a particularly big problem. Shouldn’t those folks who have the most symbolic power have an accurate read on what the organization that they serve needs most?
In order to achieve an organization’s goals, it’s important that staff and board members share an understanding of how board members can most meaningfully contribute to success.
What is the most important function of the Board? Well, it’s whatever your organization believes is most important to its success. The goal is to be on the same page.