When Board Members Poach

Aug 19, 2013 | Updated Oct 19, 2013

I have spent much of my career working with troubled arts organizations and there is one unfortunate trait that most, if not all, share: board members feel empowered to perform tasks that are typically assigned to staff members. Board members may try to manage marketing, artistic planning, financial planning or any other operation of the institution they perceive as not functioning properly. Before I became Executive Director, my Royal Opera House board even took to editing press releases during weekly board meetings!

This 'poaching' is almost always well-intentioned; the board members truly believe that the organization would succeed "if only this one thing were done better." They have lost confidence in the staff's ability and are searching for ways to make things better. They believe that their experiences running corporations, or perhaps even serving on boards of other not-for-profit organizations has given them the background required to fix the problem.

Unfortunately, poaching rarely works and often leaves staff members demoralized and any semblance of a strategy in tatters. Staff members no longer know who to obey: their staff boss who is effectively neutered when the board poaches or one of many board members who may feel empowered to direct staff efforts. In fact, I have observed several instances where two board members offer contradictory directions to the same hapless staff members. What are they supposed to do?

Too often board members do not have the knowledge to act effectively. They simply do not know the constraints facing the organization and believe that staff members are being negative when they mention them. When they come to realize, after much wasted effort, that these constraints are real, they often withdraw in frustration.

Other times, their focus waxes and wanes as their "real jobs" take priority. This leaves staff unsure how to proceed when something must be accomplished and the board member is unavailable.

Ironically, if half as much effort that is devoted to trying to fix things was devoted to fundraising, most of the problems facing the organization would disappear. In fact, rarely have I observed a board member trying to take over the fundraising effort!

Instead, many believe they can do a far better job of cost control than staff leadership and begin to make ill-advised cuts that can have deep and lasting repercussions on the organization.

Except for in the smallest organizations, board members are not meant to manage the operations of the institution. They are engaged in planning, budgeting and fundraising and serve as ambassadors to the community.

They are also charged with hiring and firing the staff leadership. If the board does not believe that this leadership can manage effectively, it should replace them. Otherwise, it must provide support, give advice and back off.

It is the responsibility of the board chair to ensure that board members fulfill these responsibilities and respect the limits of their authority. And it is the responsibility of staff leadership to perform competently and communicate freely with their board members so that they do not feel the need to poach.