There is a clear distinction between board governance and the operations side in both non-profit and government organizations. I’ve had experience in both areas. What I have learned dates back to conversations I heard many years ago when my father was a school board member.
Over time, my father became adroit in roles as an elected official on various governmental boards. He was adamant about board members understanding their roles as policy setters, and acting accordingly. He frowned on board members getting involved in operations. His feeling was, and I agree, that board members have two jobs; 1) to set policy, and 2) to deal with the CEO/ED/Superintendent.
As CFO/COO in a government organization, I’ve dealt with boards from the operational side. There were times that overzealous board members became involved in operations. While I appreciated board members who asked questions and who understood their oversight roles, having board members overextend that role became counterproductive. Normally I would then deal with the CEO of the organization to remedy the situation.
For the past 16 + years, I’ve been involved on the board side as well. I’ve been guilty of over-stepping my board role and have been reminded of that role by a CEO. As a rule, official dealings with anyone but the CEO can quickly become an obstruction to operations. Board members are generally not subject matter experts, and more importantly, don’t have boots on the ground in everyday operations.
Asking questions, understanding budgets, helping with donations and community outreach, and having a good helicopter view of operations are all important aspects of good governance as a board member.
A board that has a good handle on operations is essential to the oversight role. And when operations go awry, the board becomes essential in restoring stability to the organization. Sometimes this may involve dipping into operations until the organization is re-stabilized. But as a rule, the boundaries between policy-setting and operations must remain clear.
Moreover, boards play an essential role in governments and non-profits. A good board hires right, provides oversight, and moves the mission of the organization ahead. It is sometimes a balancing act!