The Age of Boards is Over. The Time of Strong CEOs has Come.

Strong CEOs are the key to any community’s nonprofit success. Boards of Directors have little or nothing to do with it.

Humorist Mark Twain’s famously said,

“God first made idiots (that was for practice) then He made…Boards!” 

After spending twenty-five years in nonprofit management (having worked with over 500 boards) I’ve determined, broadly speaking, there are three types of boards…

…mediocre ones, useless ones, and really bad ones.

It’s not the fault of the individual volunteer (most of the time), it’s simply a flawed business model that never had a chance to succeed.


Here’s what your contemporaries have to say:

“There is one thing all boards have in common…they do not function.” ~Peter Drucker

“Effective oversight by a board of trustees is a relatively rare and unnatural act. Trustees are often little more than high-powered, well-intentioned people engaged in low-level activities.” ~Thomas Holland

“Ninety-five percent (of boards) are not doing what they are legally, morally, and ethically supposed to do.” ~Harold Geneen

“Board members are usually intelligent and experienced persons as individuals. Yet boards, as groups, are mediocre. Boards tend to be, in fact, incompetent groups of competent individuals.” ~John Carver

“Boards have been largely irrelevant throughout most of the last 100 years.” ~James Gillies

By and large, the vast majority of volunteer board members do not have the time, experience, or skills necessary to manage a good CEO. So inevitably, instead of the members managing the CEO, the CEO is tasked with the annoying responsibility of managing the board. It’s a complete waste of time and effort.

By the way, great leaders are not “managed” in the first place! Furthermore, it doesn’t matter how big or small the organization may be (e.g. major universities vs. the local animal rescue) boards don’t work and never will because…THEY’RE MADE UP OF VOLUNTEERS WHO HAVE A LIMITED KNOWLEDGE OF NONPROFIT ENTERPRISE.

Let’s start with five functions that boards will never be good at (regardless of how many consultants you pay to “train” them.)  Here’s what boardsmanship IS NOT:

  1. Boardsmanship is not Governance
  2. Boardsmanship is not Visioning
  3. Boardsmanship is not Policy-Making
  4. Boardsmanship is not Volunteerism
  5. Boardsmanship is not Management

Boardsmanship is not Governance. Don’t kid yourselves. UNPAID BOARD MEMBERS DON’T GOVERN. Actual governance occurs when a person (with a full-time salary) supported by various paid staff (the formation of a government) is empowered to perform the daily tasks of decision-making and oversight. Strong CEOs GOVERN!

Boardsmanship is not Visioning. VISION is the way MISSION is achieved and is never the responsibility of the board because the board isn’t being paid to accomplish it. STRONG CEOs ARE TRUSTED TO CREATE VISION. (I agree that board members hold their compensated leader accountable to achieve MISSION.) Here’s what you do. Hire a strong CEO who has a history of designing VISION that accomplishes MISSION in ways you never dreamed possible. Believe me, strong CEOs are already doing it their way even if they feel the need to label their
activities as “BOARD VISION.”

Boardsmanship is not Policy-Making. Hire a CEO whose depth of experience and formal education has already equipped them as a management expert. The right CEO has been properly trained to oversee the creation of policies that work. Board Members never write policy anyway. Someone else does the heavy-lifting and they rubber stamp it.

Boardsmanship is not Volunteerism: Eliminate the special events committee. Eliminate the fundraising committee. Eliminate the public relations committee. Eliminate the strategic planning committee. (Here’s a good rule of thumb – remove everything from your by-laws that’s not related to IRS compliance.) Re-assemble these groups as volunteers (non-board members) who serve you directly. For example, a group of social workers is assembled to serve the program director, or a campaign cabinet comprised of community volunteers is built to advance fundraising. You now have individuals in their sweet spots, who are no longer saddled with arcane tasks.

Boardsmanship is not Management: Board members have no authority over the day-to-day operations of a nonprofit UNLESS there’s a written directive recorded in board meeting minutes with a motion, second and full vote. Members cannot unilaterally exercise power. Nor can committees. Conversely, board members actually need to receive permission from the CEO if they intend to act on behalf of the nonprofit in a manner that could affect daily operations.

I’ll spare you from having to review the expanded fifty-page board member’s manual containing, amongst other things, board retreats, strategic planning responsibilities and multiple committee assignments. The few times boards are able to fool themselves into thinking that they’ve fulfilled the responsibilities outlined above only occur when a strong CEO and multiple staff members spend countless hours doing the work for them. Which is why, in a recent conversation, a CEO shared, “We work hard to support our trustees…I don’t mind doing it…I simply have no idea what
it gets me.”


Meet America's Super Board - NANOE Directors

Meet America’s Super Board – NANOE Board of Directors

Great boards provide two things.


The STRONG CEO is named chair of the nominations committee and
fills these SIX POSITIONS (yes, you only need six [plus]):

1. Business Expert (Chair) Entrepreneur
2. Program Expert (Secretary) Specific
3. Finance Expert (Treasurer) Accountant
4. Legal Expert (Member) Lawyer
5. Communications Expert (Member) PR/Marketer
6. Nonprofit Expert (Member) Consultant
7. Plus (as needed) (Member) Consultant

THAT’S IT! (add other experts as needed eg. personnel, etc.) However, don’t forget, working group theory states that any “working group” with more than seven people is no longer a group that works!

Here are their ten ADVICE & ACCOUNTABILITY functions:

1. Comply with IRS Regulations
2. Hire strong Chief Executive Officer
3. Approve Meeting Agenda
4. Approve and Amend By-Laws
5. Choose and Review Independent Financial Audit (annual)
6. Choose and Review Independent Program Audit (annual)
7. Evaluate strong Chief Executive Officer
8. Attend Three Meetings per Year with Recorded Minutes
9. Support the CEOs Vision (not the boards vision)
10. Provide CEO their expert advice

Now there’s a board that works. These tasks can be achieved with diligence and excellence. Let’s abandon the failed systems. Let’s give our communities the gift of a Strong CEO. Let’s give our Strong CEO the gift of Board that actually works. Let’s stop burdening our volunteers with an endless series of onerous tasks and then persecute them for not accomplishing them. Let’s end the crazy-making.

Let’s end the insanity. No, really…this is insane, and traditional board models must end now. It hasn’t ever worked, and never will.

Here’s where we’re at…this guy walks up to a Coke machine and puts in four quarters. The machine takes his money but nothing comes out. He bangs on the side of the machine, and then carefully drops more coins into the receptacle. Again…nada, nothing comes out, so he bangs and then kicks the machine, but nothing drops. Third time’s a charm; he picks through a handful of change and, once again, gets NOTHING…so he bangs, he kicks, he rocks it back and forth and finally notices…


Please stop putting money in a machine that ain’t got no Coke in it?

Please end boards as we know them and reconfigure them in a way that works.

Author – Jimmy LaRose

Jimmy LaRose’s passion for “people who give” has inspired philanthropists around the world to change the way they invest in nonprofits. His belief that donors are uniquely positioned to give charities what they truly need – leadership rather than money – is the basis for his work with individuals, governments, corporations and foundations, in the U.S., Europe, Asia & Middle East. Jimmy, in his role as author, speaker, corporate CEO & nonprofit CEO champions all of civil society’s vital causes by facilitating acts of benevolence that bring healing to humanity and advance our common good. Now, in his twenty-seventh year of service, his message that money is more important than mission and donors are more important than people or causes has resonated with policy institute scholars, social activists, doctoral students, business leaders, think tanks, nonprofit and NGO executives who rely on him and his team of veterans to meaningfully grow their charitable enterprise. He’s the author of RE-IMAGINING PHILANTHROPY: Charities Need Your Mind More Than Your Money™ written to philanthropists who give nonprofits what they really need…enterprise models that grow capacity and achieve financial sustainability.

1 Comment

  1. Donna Mathwig says:

    I have just discovered this wildly encouraging video/information during a Google search of ‘non-traditional non-profit oversight structure’. It’s mid 2023, and this is from 2017. Wondering if more current information has developed or is available for this struggling 29+ executive director of a small rural nonprofit who has known for decades that traditional board designs are woefully inadequate and unhelpful?

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