Where is this bus going?  A Tale of a Dysfunctional Board

by Anne Yurasek on November 16, 2011

Recently I was asked, “Why are Boards so dysfunctional?”  This individual was not new to Board service and was, in fact, serving on three nonprofit Boards.  He lamented, “It seems that every Board has its issues, whether it be a lack of direction, challenging personalities, or just lack of ability to get anything done….  Why is this the case?” 

It all comes down to…the story of the bus. 

School Bus

Once upon a time, there was a big, yellow school bus filled with a group of well-intentioned, passionate volunteers who all believed in a common cause.  The bus was driven by a charismatic yet thoughtful Board chair who worked with the passengers to lay out a course for their travels.  These initial travels were exciting!  An organization was building, and positive change was the view out the windows.  Passengers were energized by the quick progress and dedicated to staying on the bus as long as needed. 

Over time, though, some of the initial passengers became tired of the journey.  Reluctantly, the bus driver allowed passengers to get off.  Yet the bus driver knew they needed more passengers to move their mission forward.  Unclear of their direction (it had been quite some time since they looked at a map), they stopped at “Resume Builder” and picked up a few new passengers - younger folk who saw Board service as a great opportunity.  The bus then turned the corner and stopped at “Local Business Owner” - a passenger with expertise in construction and a lawyer who worked in the community jumped on.  The folks on the bus were quieter during this leg - asking a few questions here and there, but trusting the driver to move the mission along.  The view was sort of monotonous - programs, a fundraiser here, a fundraiser there, more programs.  Another quick stop at “Retirees” and “Overcommitted Parents” yielded a few more well-intentioned passengers.  Then one day, the Board chair who had served a lengthy term as bus driver decided the time had come to move on and he stepped off the bus at “Free time”.

The passengers looked around the bus.  There was no one left from the original group of passengers.

“Who would like to drive?” they asked.

“Well, I think we should go down the highway,” said one of “Resume Builders”.

“Perhaps it might be better to stay downtown,” said the “Overcommitted Parent.”

“That sounds like a fine idea,” said one of the “Local Business Owners.”  “I guess I’ll drive, if no one else wants to.  And I guess we will stay downtown.”

No one on the bus had any better ideas or offered to drive (feeling grateful that someone had volunteered).  No one really felt comfortable arguing or offering a different view point.  ‘No need to offend or ruffle feathers’, they each thought.

And that’s what they did.

So what is wrong with this picture?  Typical Boards are challenging because:

  • People join Board for a variety of reasons.
  • Boards rarely have structures in place to lay out direction and ensure that knowledge is passed from older to newer members.
  • Boards do not discuss the types of members that would help move the journey forward.
  • Boards rarely discuss their own process to ensure that discussion allows and encourages alternative points of view.
  • Board decision making is based upon a very limited base of information - or in a worst case scenario - the information in one person’s head.

How does this tale resonate with you?  Does this remind you of Board experiences you have had?  Stay tuned for our next installment: Fixing the Bus:  Turning Around a Dysfunctional Board!

Photo Credit: b3d_ via Flickr

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