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Monday, June 13, 2011

The Power of the Board - Spencer

Power is a fickle commodity. It takes many forms and can be gained or lost in an instant. A celebrated prize fighter may suddenly find himself on the mat, dizzy and soon to be forgotten due to single and ill-timed misstep. A star-laden politician may utter a thoughtless statement and lose it all (George Allen – mucaca). Conversely, a soldier, in an instinctive act of selfless bravery may earn the congressional medal of honor and find his life changed forever (Audie Murphy). Power of course, is not limited to individuals. It can be found in groups, associations, nations and - as will be the focus of this blog – nonprofit boards.

Prior to 1992, most scholarly research pertaining to the distribution of power in NPOs centered on the relationship between hired CEOs and the NPO governing board. Segues into related parallels such as the power of the board chairman had been discussed, but there had not been much investigation into the distribution of power among the board members. In their 1992 article, Power in and Around Nonprofit Boards: A Neglected Dimension of Governance, Vic Murphy, Pat Bradshaw, and Jacob Wolpin took a step in closing this gap. Their work sought to expand on previous directional feints by other researchers, which identified and examined the aforementioned board/CEO and chairman/CEO relationship. To these, the authors added three additional concepts, resulting in the following, consolidated listing:

1) CEO-Dominated Board

2) Chair-Dominated Board

3) Fragmented Power Board

4) Power Sharing Board

5) Powerless Board

The purpose of this blog is to provide the interested reader some brief insight on the findings and to raise the question, “Which model best describes my board?” The answer may prove valuable in either confirming the health of your board power structure, or provide the nudge needed to begin moving in a different direction. I’ll begin with a brief description of each model. Bear in mind that my depiction is simply a snapshot of a portion the authors’ work – there is much more to their study. The titles of each model are fairly self-descriptive.

CEO-Dominated Board – The CEO and professional staff basically runs things. The board could be described as the trusting “rubber stamp”, taking little exception with CEO actions nor participating to any great extent in strategic planning.

Chair Dominated Board – Chair centric. The Chairman is the driving force, setting agendas, positing new ideas and generally controlling the direction of the organization. Disagreements on the board are few (ostensibly due to the fact that other board members and CEO are scared of the Chairman! J)

Fragmented Power Board – No central source of power. Board members all have their own agenda and generally represent differing groups of stakeholders. It is difficult to get anything done, as agreement is rare. Conflict is standard. Thus, strategic planning goes out the window, as consensus on even routine items is seldom achieved.

Power Sharing Board – No central source of power. However, as opposed to a fragmented board, this group is generally all pulling in the same direction. Democratic values are evident throughout. When differences arise, they are discussed politely and rationally until consensus is achieved.

Powerless Board – No central source of power. However, nobody really cares. Apathy carries the day. No one leads and decisive action is rare. Members may have a good idea, but fail to bring it to the table because they know that they will end up being the one to do all the work if it is adopted. Communication is poor and planning is non-existent.

So… Which of these describes your board? Which one would you like for your board to emulate? Your answer may depend on your position of vantage. I think that we can generally agree that both Fragmented Power and Powerless boards are solidly positioned at the bottom of the heap. No one really wants be a part of a losing proposition. Between the two, I’d give the edge to the Fragmented Power board. At least there is some passion, even if it is frequently frustrated by opposing views. Occasionally, personal agendas will be set aside in the interest of an idea that nobody can argue with. In such cases, there is the chance that opposing energies will coalesce. With success, relationships may form and bring a more positive synergy, leading closer to a power sharing board over time. Powerless boards just want to adjourn and go home.

Of the remaining three, I’d put the power sharing board on top. The only real weakness exhibited by this model is that sometimes, reaching consensus in polite and orderly fashion seems to take forever. However, when the bridge is finally built, it is strong and lasting. Stretching the bridge analogy a bit, in a Chair dominated paradigm, the Chairman would loudly announce, “Certainly, everyone is aware that we clearly need a bridge. Thus, we are building it here, we are building in now, and this is how we are building it. Any questions? No? Good. Thank you and here is your hammer.” Of course, in the example of a CEO-Dominated board, the CEO would say, “Ah, folks..we really need a bridge. Sign here. Thanks. You can all go home now. We’ll give you a call for the ribbon cutting ceremony.”

Again, a decision as to which of the three is best will certainly be influenced by both your point of vantage, and the concept of board effectiveness, which can be highly subjective, especially when applied to NPO as opposed to for-profit enterprises.

So… Are you happy with the power distribution you your board? Yes? Great! No? The good news is found in the closing of the Murphy, et al article where the authors give some hope by stating, “…this does not mean that there is not a choice in the matter. Power relations can be, and often are, subject to discussion and analysis by the parties involved. Change can be negotiated.” (p. 180)


Murray, Vic. Bradshaw, Pat. Wolpin, Jacob. (1992). Power in and Around Nonprofit Boards: A Neglected Dimension of Governance. Nonprofit Management and Leadership. Vol. 3, no. 2, Winter 1992.p.165-182

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