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Hands-on Boards are the Norm in the Non-Profit Sector September 14th, 2010

The opinions/views expressed by the author is theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or position of Endeavour.

Author: George Oliver, President, BGO Consulting and Endeavour Advisor

It is a common assumption that the responsibilities of a non-profit board member are limited to sampleattending meetings, sharing ‘wisdom’, evaluating the management and offering advice – that is not the case. The vast majority of non-profit boards are known as ‘working boards’, where members roll up their sleeves and do ‘real’ – if I can use the term – work (i.e., are hands-on).

The primary reason for this misconception is simple: the vast majority of non-profits are small in terms of financial resources, number of staff, and number of clients. It may come as a surprise to learn that there are approximately 161,000 non-profits in Canada, including sports leagues, churches, and community organizations, to name a few. Many have no paid staff.

Many have either no monetary resources or budgets of less than $50k. About half have no budget at all! What that means is that the board and individual board members take on the role of volunteers (who can forget the ubiquitous Golf Tournament committee?), management and staff. They do a lot of hard slogging and don’t sit around the board table talking about, for example, HR policies…that wouldn’t make sense given that there are no human resources! Without the hands-on work of the board members, the mission of the organization would not be accomplished and the organization would cease to exist.

Generally speaking, it is the larger organizations (i.e., those looking for cures for diseases, hospitals and universities) whose boards are hands-off ‘governance and policy’ boards. I suspect that since people are more knowledgeable about these large organizations – they are the ones you hear about in the media and who send out the mass fund-raising material – the public has the mistaken impression that it is unique for a board to act in a hands-on manner; it’s not.

George Oliver is President of BGO Consulting. He has managed his management consultancy for over 16 years. His practice focuses on healthcare, broadcasting and the non-profit sector in functional areas that include operations, project management, business planning and organization development.

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