Board Micro Management
A Word of Caution: Micro Management by Boards
By Mark D. Burkhardt, Director for Outdoor Ministries, ELCA
The greatest temptation of most outdoor ministry boards is to micro-manage the day-to-day operations of the organization. The temptation is great because the love for the ministry is great and board members feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for making sure that everything goes well. Unfortunately, the actions of the board often have the opposite effect, creating a climate of confusion and mistrust between board and staff. Conflicts between a board and the staff executive are frequently focused on the confusion over the role of each within the life of the organization. When board members become overly involved, it’s normal for staff to fell undervalued and not respected for the expertise and experience they bring to the job. It also disrupts the normal flow of communication and decision-making between everyone involved.
In most cases, the appropriate role of the board is to stay focused on the large issues facing the organization: strategic planning, establishing policies, determining programs, adopting and monitoring spending plans, hiring and supporting the executive director, assisting in resource development and fulfilling legal requirements. The role of the staff is to take the plans and policies as adopted by the board and put them into action as the organization goes about its regular business.
In the area of personnel, boards can easily get pulled into conflicted staff situations. Board members should make it clear to all staff (year-round and seasonal) that the executive director is directly or indirectly responsible for supervising all staff. The only time the board should ever deal with a particular staff situation is at the request of the staff executive who may be seeking advice or as the last “court of appeal” in an established grievance procedure.
The temptation to micro-manage staff is especially great where there is a standing Personnel Committee. Personnel committees should limit their role to reviewing personnel policies and recommending policy changes to the Board. Under no circumstances should a personnel committee become engaged in the process of doing staff performance reviews or hearing staff complaints on an ongoing basis. The only staff member who should be reviewed by the board is the executive of the organization.
When it comes to finances, board members are frequently tempted to second-guess the line item spending decisions of the staff. Board members should keep in mind, however, that a decision to purchase a particular item can be a complex decision requiring detailed analysis not appropriate for board member involvement. As long as a purchase fits within the spending plan of the organization, the staff should be encouraged by the board to make daily spending decisions. The primary job of the board is to periodically measure the financial performance of the organization against the plan adopted at the beginning of the budget year.
The board can expect to hear from the staff when they anticipate a significant departure from anticipated income or expenses. The board should be monitoring the financial health of the organization without immersing itself in the details.
Property management is the third area that tempts board members to become overly involved. Again, the motivation is well-meaning, but the result can be very disrupting to the organization. The board needs to stay focused on planning; setting goals and priorities for capital repair, replacements and improvements of site and facilities. Board members should keep in mind that building codes and requirements that apply to outdoor ministry centers are often quite different than those that apply in residential settings. What works at home may not work in a camp or retreat center. Board members should learn to rely on the expertise of staff members and contract professionals who are trained to deal with institutional systems and design. Individual board members are encouraged to volunteer on special workdays, but need to take direction from the lead staff person who is organizing the day.
There are exceptions to all of the above situations, most notably in small outdoor ministry settings with limited staff. In those organizations, it may be appropriate for the board to take a more hands-on role in the operation of the ministry. A more active role for the board may also be called for when there is a temporary leadership void in the organization. When then void is filled, however, the lard should be prepared to back off and resume its normal role of oversight and support.
In healthy outdoor ministry organizations the board stays focused on the big picture and supports and respects the work of the staff. The staff, in turn, respects the authority of the board and assists the board in doing its work by providing accurate and timely information for decision-making. A healthy board/staff partnership is perhaps the single most important factor in producing a healthy, creative, and thriving organization. Take some time at your next board meeting to do some board education and consider using this article as a conversation starter.