Boards in a Bubble

The question was should the board be allowed to have direct contact with the staff of the organization. I confess I was amazed that there was even a sliver of a doubt. Does anything really think we must keep our Boards in a Bubble, as if letting them talk directly with those doing the work was something bad?

Free-flow of information is vital. Damming up that raises the question: What are you trying to hide? More to the point, think of the closed-information systems we’ve recently seen (think the Bush administration or the Wall Street debacle) and what they have wrought. Making wise choices and running organizations well is where diversity really counts. Hearing different points of view always helps to make better decisions.

Yes, of course, the CEO is the primary contact with the Board. He or she should be in regular contact with every member, especially committee chairs. Frequent meetings with the executive committee should be part of the standard operating procedure. Together they should be agreeing on strategic directions and discussing in detail what is going on at the organization.

The Board and the CEO should be partners. If this is so, then there will be respect and an understanding of who is the day-to-day leader and ultimate decision maker at the organization. Steven Sample, President of USC, writes in The Contrarian Guide to Guide to Leadership writes that he will meet and listen to everyone, but decisions are made only in a strict hierarchical fashion. That means he never goes over any of his managers’ heads. That’s good advice for any leader, including board members.

But that should not mean that the Board only interacts with the CEO. This is how poor decisions get made. The Board must hear from those on the ground who are working directly with our clients and must have first-hand knowledge of how our programs are run. This is especially but not exclusively important as it relates to development.

Just as I want my major donors to have as many touch points within the organization as possible—and this always turns into a stronger relationship and, yes, more money—I want my board to have as broad a picture of the organization as possible. Otherwise they cannot either govern well or be passionate and honest ambassadors of our organizations to the public at large. Nor can they be effective fundraisers if they only see what the CEO tells them to see.

Yes, it’s messier if the board and staff talk freely with others. Yes, there is a possibility that an angry staff member may cause some problems (but let’s get real here—angry staff will always find a way to connect with board members; better you should know this is happening), and yes, it means more transparency. But that, I think, is a good thing.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at