Zombies on the Board: Part 1

IFC CEO, John Baguley talks about what happens when your Board is made up of zombies…I was giving a presentation to the Board of Trustees of a client last year explaining why their fundraising was failing and what they needed to do to avert catastrophe, but they barely reacted and then went on with business as usual, as if what I had just explained existed in some other reality and for some of them it probably did…

Lack of reaction

A lack of reaction to new possibilities or events is typical of zombie boards, not that my presentations were earth shattering or even particularly organisation shattering, but the lack of thought and reflection expressed in the decision making process of some boards has sometimes been quite staggering.

Any group of people who work together over a period of time may acquire group characteristics and group beliefs which are hard to alter, which may be our herd instinct coming to the fore. In management boards this can be crippling and is sometimes due to a lack of proper governance procedures, such as a failure to set up proper search teams and person specs for new members or simply not having a fixed term of office, like the usual three years, with perhaps a second term then you are really off and no sneaking back. No fixed term is particularly pernicious as it often leads to a long term Chair dominating the proceedings and clear group views about the organisation solidifying into inertia as times change – and we live in changing times do we not?

Day of reckoning

In another organisation, one particular chair used his position to appoint the other Board members and began to feel it was his personal charity, which was fine as long they had a great director and took a hands off approach. However, as with most badly organised activities, the day of reckoning came with the inevitable change as a new director had to be appointed. Whilst looking and sounding just like a typical old board member, the new director was actually quite passionate about the beneficiaries and felt the organisation had not moved with the times from the days they provided residential homes for people to providing the rather more relevant services currently required.

I changed something there, so sorry you haven’t guessed which organisation it is (I hope) but it might just ring a bell?

Zombie inertia syndrome

At first the board reacted with the typical stifling zombie inertia syndrome: putting off making a decision, asking for more information, querying the need and the figures then saying, “Not yet, let’s review the situation next year”, and it went back to sleep, preferring to hold rambling discussions about the colour of the new logo the director had proposed.

He did not, however, let things rest there and having become even more convinced of the merits of his case on one particular issue, through a professional fact finding process, decided to put it out to the local support groups for consultation. If you have ever seen a board versus local group fight, you will know that this is as close to civil war as you can get without shots being fired. The local groups loved the new direction as they were involved with the beneficiaries and often worked closely with them as practitioners.

It all came to a head at the AGM when many of the oldest local group members discovered they were ‘members’ of the charity and entitled to vote which they did most effectively. A host of new resolutions had been put forward both for the new direction for the organisation, but also for new governance procedures. At first the board reacted as zombies usually do and dug their heels in before the meeting, disallowing proposals, changing motions and leaving a couple key votes off the ‘consolidated’ agenda so neutralising the effect of many of the remaining changes. The chair was heard to mutter repeatedly “this just won’t do…” as if his disapproval alone made the motions invalid.

Lawyers were consulted many of whom were already working with local groups and tactics discussed with much leafing through the Arts & Mems, which set out the procedures for the AGM. Fortunately, they were just standard procedures and quite clear about the conduct of the meeting. So on the day the majority prevailed and in the end a new group were appointed to the Board mandated to make changes.

Check back in later this week for Part Two of Zombies on the Board.

Zombies on the Board was first published on UK Fundraising.