Three More Hats

One of my go-to questions when trying to understand any charity is to ask the Executive Director “How are things going with your board?”. The answers, or long pauses before answers, are quite illuminating.

The work of a charity’s Board of Directors is rarely the glamorous aspect of the organization. But it is absolutely essential and often misunderstood. I really enjoy opportunities to help the well-meaning volunteers who serve as Directors to know their role and lead well.

Years ago I learned and began to teach a useful concept from governance guru Bob Andringa. He explains that Directors can think of their role as a set of three hats they wear in different circumstances. It goes a little like this:

Hat #1: Governance 

This is the hat worn only during board or official committee meetings. Wearing it, the Directors carry the legal and moral authority to govern the organization. Decisions made wearing this hat are made for the best interests of the charity, regardless of the Director’s personal preferences, and all staff and volunteers are bound by them. Effective boards have plenty of serious disagreement, but they keep it behind closed doors and communicate with one voice when a decision has been made.

Hat #2: Implementer

Boards make decisions. Some of those decisions are acted upon by the Executive Director or other people, but often someone from the board is given responsibility to act on or communicate the Board’s decisions. This is the Implementer. When speaking or acting on behalf of the entire Board, designated Directors can act with the full authority of the Board, but only within the specific parameters of the decision. Delivering a performance review or offer of employment (or termination) to the Executive Director is a common example of being the Implementer.

Hat #3: Volunteer

This is where things can get tricky. It is a good sign when Directors are actively involved in the programs and events of the charity but anytime a Director is not in a Board meeting or specifically implementing a decision of the Board, they do not have the authority of the Board. They are the same as every other volunteer. In smaller organizations its not unusual for people to approach Directors with concerns and expect them to address the issues given their role. This is a recipe for trouble. Directors need to take responsibility for clarifying that they are entirely under the authority of the staff and/or other volunteers except when explicitly wearing one of the other hats.

I taught these three hats for several years with good results. But recently I’m convinced there are three other hats that need to be added to the Board’s already crowded heads. Andringa’s hats represent the roles Directors play within the organizational structure. But there are also external aspects that frequently come into play. So I propose some additional hats:

Hat #4: The Donor

Some organizations require each Director to give a certain minimum donation to the charity each year to serve on the Board. I agree with the principle that Directors should be donors, but not with designating a minimum buy in like a poker game. Donors should never be able to purchase a seat at the Board table based on the size of their donation. Directors need to give sincerely, not for leverage; and their donations should not be taken for granted. Ideally, Directors should not designate their gifts but support the general operating of the organization.

Hat #5: The Friend

Most Directors begin their connection to the charity through a personal relationship, often with the Executive Director or another senior staff member. There are advantages and disadvantages to these friendships. Before joining a Board I always have to ask myself “Am I willing to fire my friend if it would be best for the charity?”. If not, I can not become a Director in good conscience. At the same time, Boards that maintain only a “professional” relationship with their top staff are missing out on the benefits that greater trust and understanding bring. Honest communication and a shared understanding of the role of a Director helps avoid the pitfalls and embrace the advantages.

Hat #6: The Client

In many organizations (eg. churches, schools, camps, etc.) Directors or their families are also the participants and beneficiaries of the programs. This adds another complexity to the dynamic. It gives great insight to the grassroots operations that some Boards struggle to access. It also can bring a bias that makes it difficult to work for the benefit of the entire organization. Staff and volunteers may need to be reminded that Directors have no authority or privilege as participants.

This may seem complex, but actually it simplifies the reality. Directors need to take responsibility for understanding which hat they are wearing in each circumstance and to communicate that clearly to others whenever it could be in question. As with so much in life and leadership, open communication is the key.