Executive Directors: Is Your Board Bored?

Author: Regina Birdsell – President & CEO, CNM

A few years ago, a national survey asked board members and executive directors to give their board a letter grade, A-F.  Board members gave themselves an A, while executive directors gave their boards a C. 

So why the disconnect? 

It’s my experience that, despite caring about the mission, many board members don’t know what they are supposed to do. Organizations have competent, smart, busy executive directors and sometimes board members believe they don’t know enough to be helpful and will just get in the way. 

I have worked with thousands of board members and ED’s representing large, small, early-stage, and mature organizations. I hear the same feedback year after year: We write thoughtful board reports and include easy-to-recognize action items but our board members seem to have amnesia and don’t remember seeing or hearing anything that describes exactly what they need to do to help. My nonprofit colleagues are discouraged because they don’t get the cooperation and support they’d hoped for, even though they’ve communicated clearly and aren’t sure what they should reasonably expect, pandemic effects or not. If leadership can figure out, together, what needs to be done — what talents or interests your board and staff can leverage to achieve a shared goal and then define the tactics to get you there — you will see more board engagement and commitment. Here are four tactics I’ve seen work:


  • Make goal-setting a board activity – provide relevant facts and brief context and then ask: Given our mission and those facts, what should we do to address the situation?
  • Define and clarify the roles of board members AND staff to achieve that goal
  • Remember to celebrate the organization’s victories together
  • Be quiet – let the board contribute their own ideas, prioritize options and suggestions and the specific roles they will play with deadlines

As we approach the end of the year, many of you will be contacting CNM’s staff consultants to schedule productive, engaging board retreats — and we look forward to helping you. But in meantime, as you start to look ahead to 2023, it is a great time to give these tactics a try. Stop writing long reports that most board members will only scan, and involve your board as thought partners, who share your commitment to the mission. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

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About the Author

regina birdsell Executive Directors: Is Your Board Bored?

Known for leveraging public and private assets to achieve ambitious goals; Regina Birdsell has, for more than 30 years, collaborated with business, philanthropy, government, media, and the nonprofit sector to address complex problems and drive positive change. Since coming to CNM in 2006, she has led the development of innovative programs to build the management skills of those who work for the public good, especially Southern California’s nonprofit organizations. Learn more about Regina

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