Board Dynamics and Dysfunction

By Linda Ferm, CAE

Board Dynamics and dysfunction was the topic of conversation when 30 women met at the offices of NYSSA on September 13 for NYSAE’s Executive Women in Nonprofits Shared Interest Group. To prepare, attendees were asked to review in advance the Harvard study—Dysfunction in the Boardroom: Understanding the persistent gender gap at the highest levels. Following is a summary of the provocative and interactive discussion.

Effective Board Orientation for New Directors
Often board orientation is delivered in one short session based on cost and time necessity. We found that part of the board’s understanding of its primary work starts with understanding how it can indeed contribute to that very task by serving on a board. Board orientation is part of the answer. Effective orientation explains the organization, how it is set up, governed, builds its programs and delivers value to its members and volunteers. It explains committees and how they accomplish their work. Most importantly, it looks at what is expected of a new director starting service on the board. Board books become an important reference tool.

Centerpiece of Board Work Is Mission Delivery
It seems as if board members generally think that the board supports the organization’s mission, but when it comes to actually executing decisions based on mission, we found boards disagree about how to fulfill the mission, articulate the mission, and use the mission to drive decisions.

Social Time Between Board Members
We agreed that board members say that a benefit of serving on a board is the opportunity to network with one another and learn from each other’s experiences. Social times are necessary around a board meeting. Such times dispel tension and get the board out of the boardroom and into a comfortable environment for conversation and some genuine enjoyment.

Board Composition
One of the most commonly cited benefits of diversity and inclusion for association and nonprofit boards of directors is better deliberations as a result of bringing varied opinions and perspectives to bear on the issues confronting an organization. This applies as well to a diversity of skills and experience represented on the board. We agreed board composition is enhanced with good mix of women and men directors. Often trade boards are primarily composed of men. The case can be made for women’s organizations opening up the board to men directors.

Differences in Board Composition By Gender*
Boards composed of all females tend to micromanage, but on the other hand, are more amenable to board evaluation and measures of performance. Another thought: if female gender equity were part of a female organization’s mission, why wouldn’t the group invite members of the opposite sex to join the board to broaden the discussion and add to the strategic planning process?

Boards comprised of all males respond to perks and participate for the camaraderie as much as for addressing organizational issues. This is particularly true for solo practitioners, who carry on their businesses in relative isolation. Socializing is very important to them.

Mixed-gender boards tend to be more productive, especially in conducting well-rounded discussions and in making well thought-out decisions, particularly where the ratio of men to women is nicely balanced. *Contributed by Gina Ryan, CAE

Examples of Board Dysfunction*
Some of the individual dysfunctions that board members may play out in an organizational setting include:

  • Self-dealing, particularly among officers—trying to engage in business relationships (i.e., contracts for services) in which they have a vested interest or where they are promoting the interests of friends over the interest of the organization.
  • Power plays or discouragement of ambitions—disappointment with nominating committee selections or recommendations.
  • Unemployment or underemployment—where a board member fantasizes about taking on the CEO role or inappropriately elicits the help of senior staff in conducting a job search.

*Contributed by Gina Ryan, CAE

Board Terms
Rotating board member term limits helps keep a board fresh and avoids board burn out and complacency. It offers a board the opportunity to bring on younger members and diversify the group for maximum input of ideas and perspectives.

Cultivating Board Leadership
We agreed it is always important to identify and groom leaders to give stability to an organization.

Board Self-Assessment
Board self-assessments help improve its own work. It allows board members to better understand their own roles and responsibilities and how they can more effectively fulfill their obligations. Self-assessment can develop the board’s team building skills, provide structure for problem-solving, and increase accountability within the organization. Just going through a process is not enough. The board should also analyze the results, learn from them and incorporate improvements in its behavior and structure.


Linda Ferm, CAE, is principal, Ferm Strategies; 917-921-4422;; A past member of NYSAE’s Board of Directors, she facilitated the September 13 program for NYSAE’s Executive Women in Nonprofits Shared Interest Group.