In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Rick Moyers, vice president for programs and communications at the Meyer Foundation in Washington DC – a regional grantmaker that is nationally recognized for its capacity-building programs. Rick is a co-author of the Daring to Lead 2006 and Daring to Lead 2011 national studies of nonprofit executive directors, and has written and spoken extensively on executive and board leadership. He currently serves on the boards of BoardSource, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, and the Community Connections Fund of the World Bank Group.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: You write a lot about nonprofit boards of directors. As a general rule, because they are volunteers, nonprofit boards tend to be pretty ineffective and disengaged from truly leading their organizations. Can the current structure of nonprofit leadership be made more effective? Or is there a better structure, and if so, how would we undertake such a fundamental shift in the sector?
Rick: We can’t give up on boards just because many boards are ineffective, any more than we can give up on public schools just because so many are struggling. And the fact that board members are volunteers doesn’t necessarily account for their disengagement—some of the most passionate and productive contributors to the nonprofit sector are volunteers.
But just because I’m not ready to give up doesn’t mean we can just keep doing the things we’ve been doing to improve boards, hoping our efforts will produce better results, and wringing our hands when they don’t. We’ve heaped so many expectations and roles onto the backs of boards that I’m not sure it’s possible for any board to fulfill all of them all the time. A good place to start improving things would be to become much more focused and pragmatic about what we expect from boards. A clear set of expectations – one that’s not simply a laundry list of everything we wish boards would do – would be a start. Along with the recognition that organizations need different things from their boards depending on their circumstances.
We need to recruit board members with at least as much thought and effort as we put into recruiting employees, if not even more given that board service is a multi-year and often multi-term commitment. I know board members who have been invited to join the boards of organizations with which they were completely unfamiliar after a 15-minute conversation with the chair of the nominating committee—or a casual lunch with the executive director. And then we wonder why they have a hard time engaging. If we recruited board members as if the job mattered and their selection was an important decision, perhaps they would start taking the job more seriously. We can’t give up on boards without doing a better job of trying to help them function better.
At the same time, there would be enormous value in trying out alternative structures and talking openly about whether they worked any better than the current model. My hunch is that alternatives are being tried out quietly, but we don’t talk about them much. I’d be interested in learning more about very small boards (four or five carefully chosen people), the impact of compensation on board member performance, boards with greater staff representation, and boards that are more democratic and representative of the constituencies and communities being served. I’m not confident in suggesting any of these as an alternative to current practice because I don’t think we know enough. But we don’t know enough because most organizations don’t believe they have permission to experiment (and maybe they don’t). There’s enormous pressure for “normative” behavior in governance, even though we know that normative behavior often produces mediocre results.
I don’t have a good answer for how we break this cycle, but I think we need a “learning lab” for governance practices. We need to be bolder in our experiments, and more open in sharing the results, even when they are unsuccessful.
Nell: The Daring to Lead studies that you co-authored with CompassPoint demonstrate a deep leadership crisis in the nonprofit sector – nonprofit leaders are burned out, planning to leave, and lack support for leadership development. Is more money for leadership development the answer, and if so, how do we get funders to understand the need and fund it?
Rick: More money is the answer, but not necessarily more money for leadership development. My take-away from this body of work is that chronic under-capitalization is at the root of executive director burnout and dissatisfaction. The problem is not just that organizations don’t have enough money for leadership development. They don’t have enough money for anything.
While I applaud funders that invest in leadership development—and the Meyer Foundation is among them—there’s also a danger that funder-driven leadership development programs become simply another demand on already overextended executive directors. Funders need to recognize the importance of leadership development, but also need a keen understanding of the financial and organizational constraints that have a profound impact on executive directors who may already be accomplished leaders. One of the lessons from my foundation’s experience is that large grants for leadership development can be hard to use when executives are facing so many other challenges and distractions, many of which are related to finances and fundraising.
Nell: Why is leadership development taken as a given in the for-profit sector, but taboo in the nonprofit sector? Why do we assume that nonprofit leaders should be able to go it alone? And how do we change that attitude?
Rick: In the for-profit sector, there are more vehicles for ensuring adequate capitalization and leaders have greater discretion over how they can use that capital, with the mandate of producing the greatest return for owners, investors, and shareholders. That said, it’s very telling that so many large companies spend freely on leadership development without questioning the return on investment, while nonprofit leaders are conditioned to question every penny spent on anything other than program delivery. Boards can be especially shortsighted in this regard, under-investing in current executive directors without considering the costs—in money, organizational reputation, and lost momentum—of an untimely transition. We need more evidence, both anecdotal and quantitative, of the ROI for leadership development in the nonprofit sector. Producing that evidence and telling that story will require resources, but I’m concerned that without that investment we’ll never be able to make a convincing case to boards and funders that are increasingly focused on evidence-based approaches.
Nell: Do you think as Millennials age into leadership positions in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors they will fundamentally change nonprofit leadership? And if so, how?
Rick: While not wanting to sound cranky, I object on principle to making generalizations about a group of 80 million people as if they were a single thing. And as a member of Generation X, I also must point out that we’re the ones who are currently aging into leadership positions. What about us, damn it?
Crankiness aside, as someone who works with younger leaders every day, I have noticed some differences that hold promise for the future. Many in the rising generation are much more socially aware, passionate about social change, and optimistic that they can make a difference than I was at their age. They are choosing careers in the nonprofit sector with more thought and intention than previous generations. The dramatic increase in the number of academic centers and degree programs focused on the nonprofit sector and philanthropy over the past 20 years is producing accomplished young leaders with broad skill sets and considerable insight into nonprofit work.
I do notice a more conscious commitment to work-life balance, and more intentionality around achieving it, which I hope will help reduce burnout and abrupt departures of nonprofit executives. Just within the last six months, I’ve watched three younger executive directors transition out of their jobs because they were seeking greater work-life balance. The difference from what I’ve seen in the past is that these executives decided to leave after successful tenures of more than five years, and after working intentionally to develop a strong board and staff leadership team that could handle the transition. These leaders stepped down before they burned out, and handed off strong organizations that were prepared for the change. That’s very encouraging, and I hope it’s a trend.
A committed and talented cadre of younger leaders is already in the nonprofit leadership pipeline – not by accident, but because they want to be here. Daring to Lead and many other studies have highlighted the challenges inherent in being an executive director, so these younger leaders know what the role entails. And they still want to do it. I think that bodes well for the future, and I’m optimistic.
Photo Credit: Meyer Foundation