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Beyond Oversight
Developing Grassroots Nonprofit Boards for Community and Institutional Change
David P. Moxley
ISBN: 978-0-87101-401-6. 2011. Item #4016. 308 pages.

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What does it take to successfully develop a strong and effective grassroots nonprofit board David P. Moxley’s Beyond Oversight: Developing Grassroots Nonprofit Boards for Community and Institutional Change provides nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations with a uniquely authoritative answer to that question. Based on his three decades of work with nonprofit organizations and their boards – principally in the areas of organizational development and achievement of results – Moxley’s book offers a comprehensive perspective on board development that respects how individual organizations must make their own specific decisions about how governance will produce value in community service.

Increasingly, nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations are playing integral roles in community and social change, and their boards are critical structures to the achievement of institutional effectiveness. Throughout the book, Moxley maintains a focus on the community service organization and what makes it distinctive as an agent of social change. Structured as a roadmap, the book offers specific steps for newly founded boards as well as for those that are working to revitalize their leadership.

With its numerous examples and guidelines, this book is relevant to senior organizational administrators working directly with boards, board members themselves, students preparing for careers in community service, and activists engaging in social change efforts at the community level. Beyond Oversight: Developing Grassroots Nonprofit Boards for Community and Institutional Change is one of the best investments you can make in your organization’s governing body.


  • PROLOGUE: The Concept of Board Development

SECTION ONE: An Overview of Board Development

  1. Imperative of Board Development in Community Service

  2. Five Properties of the Developing Board

SECTION TWO: Developing the Board as a Multidimensional System

  1. Institutional Dimension

  2. Functional Dimension

  3. Performance Dimension

  4. Lifespan Dimension

SECTION THREE: Developing Board Identity

  1. Understanding "Who We Are"

  2. Identifying "Where We Are Going"

SECTION FOUR: Supporting Board Development

  1. Board Development Mission

  2. Board Development Committee

  3. Leadership of Board Members

  4. Board-Agency Interface

SECTION FIVE: Developing Board Members

  1. Anticipating Board Membership

  2. Socializing and Educating Board Members

  3. Anticipating and Planning Succession

SECTION SIX: Moving Through the Cycle of Board Development

  1. Self-Evaluation of Board Development Needs

  2. Board Development Retreat

  3. Board Development Plan

  • EPILOGUE: Journey without End



Two Board Members at Lunch

Sally (the board chair): What do you think we should do in the next year to develop the board of the agency?

Sam (the recruitment chair): Recruit a few more members who will work harder than the ones we have.

Sally: Don't you think board development is something more than just getting new members?

Sam: No.

Purpose and Focus of the Book

This book is intended for those people who are interested in boards of community service organizations. It is for those people who believe that board development is more than the recruitment of new members – that it involves something more, such as the development of vision and focus. I write this book for those individuals who have undertaken leadership roles in community service organizations and agencies. Most often nonprofit, these organizations form voluntarily to address some of the most pressing needs society faces. Those issues come in many different forms and reflect various sectors of society, including ecology and animal rights, human rights, economic and community development, and health and human services, to name a few.

Throughout the United States, hundreds and hundreds of small experiments are occurring in which citizens from many different backgrounds come together into voluntary nonprofit organizations. These organizations seek to advance the public good and public interest in a range of areas like the arts, community service, and social service (Clifton & Dahms, 1993; Hamilton & Tragert, 1998). They push forward new ideas about justice and equity (Horton, 1998) and about the provision of social utilities like the education of children and youths (Meier, 1995) and health care (Salamon & Anheier, 1996).

Despite a cynicism that has shrouded U.S. social welfare for a number of decades (Champagne & Harpham, 1984; Perlmuter, 1984), these organizations – often described as "grassroots" agencies – are experimenting with potential solutions to vexing social problems. Sometimes with the support of foundations, the public sector, and corporations – other times through their own means and devices – these agencies often offer innovative responses and solutions. They are energized by strong commitments to making an impact on some kind of community problem, or fulfilling some kind of human need (Turnbull, 1995).

This book focuses on the boards of these organizations because these structures are so fundamental to the success of community and social service agencies as they try new ways of advancing quality of life, the support of people who face serious social problems, and the development of community (Rifkin, 1995). A community service board exists to govern an agency, typically a nonprofit one. It offers agency management and staff members both policy leadership and policy development to guide the direction of the organization in its service or community activities.

Through my own research on board structures – as well as my direct experience with boards as a consultant, a member, and as a consumer of board decisions and actions during my service as an agency administrator – I have personally experienced the importance of board performance.

In these various roles with boards, I discovered that many of them have become preoccupied with a narrowly defined function, typically focusing on accountability and trusteeship (Miller, 1988). I do not want to present as unimportant the monitoring of executive performance, fiscal performance, and the fulfillment of the expectations of external funders, but these activities receive their share of attention in a number of other books and monographs on the governing boards of nonprofit and voluntary agencies. Indeed, as privatization, contractual arrangements, or purchase of service arrangements have become basic tools of social policy, many board members see their role as holding the agency accountable for its performance in an environment in which the voluntary organization is an extension of the public or private sectors.

The lines between private and public are increasingly blurred in the United States as all levels of government remove themselves from the direct provision of services and transfer these service functions to the voluntary sector (Bozeman, 1987), and now more recently to an emerging for-profit sector. The business model that is now so in vogue in human and social services has gained ascendancy (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992). Boards based on trusteeship – that is, those that conceive of their role as ensuring the "proper" running and accountability of the agency – may very well be the most prominent type of governance structure (Gummer, 1990).

Board Development as Stewardship

But this book is not merely about trusteeship. It focuses on board development as an expression of stewardship. Many voluntary and nonprofit community and social service agencies emerge out of social action (Bettencourt, 1996). They are often tied to a social movement and become one concrete expression of this movement (Silberberg, 1997).

The members of the boards of these agencies often come together because they are dissatisfied or disaffected. They may be disaffected and alarmed by how people coping with HIV/AIDS drift into poverty and become isolated in their communities. They may be alarmed and angered by the mistreatment of women. They may be concerned about supporting gay and lesbian citizens who face a cruel and disparaging society. They may be indignant about the discrimination and stigma experienced by people with serious mental illness as they cope with inhospitable and isolating communities. Or they may address the economic state of the community (Henton, Melville, & Walesh, 1997). These board members, especially early in the development of their agencies, may be people who have actually experienced firsthand the insults and deprivations experienced by the people the agency has chosen to represent and for whom they wish to advocate (Bettencourt, 1996; Hick & McNutt, 2002). Their experiences with the "problem" the agency seeks to address are primary – based on first-person experience – rather than secondary like those possessed by professionals and lay advocates (Ezell, 2001; Schneider & Lester, 2001; D. Smith, 1997).

The call of trusteeship does not typically bring these kinds of people into board structures. The desire to steward an agency toward more effective and relevant solutions to the social problem that has served as the organizing impulse of the agency may be a salient if not principal motivating force for board membership. Trusteeship becomes salient when boards must confront the reality of financial viability: They find that they need to secure funds to advance their cause from state and federal sources, from private federated sources like the United Way, or from foundation and corporate sources. Trusteeship may also become important when the agency is confronted with formalizing and growing. But growth and development are two different things. "Growth" involves the expansion of size and mass. "Development" involves the creation of increasingly sophisticated and competent structures to achieve a desired end state (Ackoff, 1991; Gawthrop, 1984).

The stewards are often far ahead of the trustees. It is not unusual for boards of community service agencies to adopt a vanguard role (Hasenfeld, 1983; Kramer, 1981). They undertake on their own the organization and delivery of services and community supports to populations whose needs are not legitimized and consequently not addressed by those institutions responsible for identifying needs and problems and planning and financing solutions (Garr, 1995). Witness the vanguard role in action in such diverse areas as mental retardation, autism, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, serious mental illness, homelessness, and epilepsy in which advocates created systems of support and service – often innovative ones – well before the funders were willing to recognize that a need or problem existed. Those boards incorporating stewardship perhaps are the ones willing to engage in vigorous resource development. They establish bold visions, assert the human rights of the people who bear the negative effects of serious social problems, and create networks among and between people to sponsor responses to these negative effects (Chait, Holland, & Taylor, 1996). Stewardship can involve the emotional side of social action – board membership can demand a sort of empathic engagement and emotional awareness of the issue at hand combined with an intellectual rigor demanding a full understanding of the dimensions of the given social issue.

Trusteeship expresses the contractual and the business aspects of the agency whereas stewardship expresses spirit, compassion, and commitment. Perhaps trusteeship is the more rational face of the board whereas stewardship is the more irrational or affective face. But without stewardship, the board will likely lack the energy it requires to create the "good" it seeks to produce on behalf of a community, a population, or a group of people (Block, 1993).

Concept of Board Development

For me, as author, stewardship and development go hand in hand. By development I mean the intentional and purposeful enhancement and improvement of board resources, structure, and performance over time. The "developing board" is a structure that becomes very conscious of what it is trying to do, why it is trying to do it, and how it wants to do it. By virtue of this kind of clarity, informed by well thought out means and ends, the board of the community service organization can begin to identify the strengths and assets it needs to make it robust, resilient, and effective. These challenges must be met using all of the resources of the board to make the agency effective. My hypothesis is this: A strong board, a developing board, creates a strong and developing agency. The strong board is purposeful both in its establishment of vision for the agency it seeks to steward, and in the development of its own resources that it needs to undertake this stewardship successfully. The board has a vitality that is created through a conscious commitment to its own development (Zander, 1993).

Relevant Audiences

Board development is critical because the work of community agencies is critical. This simple observation establishes the relevant audiences of this book. It is intended for those board members who see themselves developing as stewards of the agencies they govern. It is intended for those executives and agency administrators who see the need for the development of vital and energetic boards. It is intended for agency staff members who are involved in board committees and other structures. And it is intended for those students who want to learn about how boards can develop with an eye toward their own involvement in a board of a community and social service agency. Those readers who are more interested in the trustee function of the board can look elsewhere for very fine and relevant materials, such as the work by Carver and Carver (1997).

Boards committed to their development may want to incorporate this book into their own continuing education and knowledge-building endeavors. The book can be useful in the orientation process that helps board members, advisory committee members, and staff members gain an understanding of board development as a process and outcome. It can offer board members an understanding of how to proceed with their own board development plan and it offers strategies to the board on how to implement board development through (1) strengthening internal processes and structures, (2) linking to the agency, and (3) linking to the community. Thus, the book stands as an "on-the-shelf" resource. It can be referenced to gain an understanding of a specific board development need or to address this need (for example, formulation of vision). It can be used as an action guide to create a board development plan, and as a continuing education resource to orient board members and to help them to become informed about board development.

Organization of the Book

The book is organized into six principal sections. It comprises 18 chapters in addition to the Prologue and Epilogue. Section 1 places board development into the context of a changing policy environment and identifies the properties of the developing board. This section underscores the vital role served by community and social service organizations in a social policy context that increasingly constrains human services at a time when there is considerable need for innovation in grassroots, community-based service organizations. Section 2 examines the development of the board as a complex system, including its institutional, functional, performance, and lifespan dimensions.

Section 3 examines the development of board identity and presents the two principal questions that a board must answer to develop in a viable manner. Section 4 devotes four chapters to the support of board development involving the board development mission, the board development committee, the leadership of board members, and the interface between the agency and the board. The three chapters of section 5 examine the development of board members, whereas section 6 examines board development as a cycle that incorporates self-evaluation, the board development retreat, and the board development plan.

At the end of each chapter, I offer some questions to prompt further thinking, and perhaps to provoke discussion and debate among board members. I recommend their use as exercises useful in extending the thinking of board members about their roles and functions within community and social service agencies.

My hope is that this volume serves as a relevant resource to the boards of community and social service agencies. Many of these agencies are involved in heroic work that is quite demanding and trying at times. We need to reflect, now more than ever, on how important these organizations are to the realization of strong communities and to compassionate responses to human need. We need to reflect, now more than ever, on how essential high-performing boards are to the realization of effectiveness and vitality on the part of these agencies. Although boards will most likely continue to be in the background of the day-to-day work of these agencies, the contributions they make to effectiveness, innovation, and high performance cannot and should not be overlooked. Board development is essential to agency performance and must be an objective of those structures that can influence development the most: that is, the boards that steward community and social service agencies.

Questions for Board Discussion

  1. Is board development important to your agency or organization? What reasons support the need to engage in board development? Why is it important to the success of the agency or organization?

  2. What external forces are operating on the agency that make board development relevant at this time? Describe these forces and characterize how they influence the agency. Why are they significant to board development?

  3. What are the current functions of your board? Is the board satisfied or dissatisfied with these functions? Should they change in light of the external forces operating on the agency?

  4. Characterize the stewardship of the board. What activities undertaken by your board indicate that it engages in the stewardship of the agency?

  5. What is the board's vision of its role? How does it want to develop to better achieve this role on behalf of the agency?

David P. Moxley, PhD, DPA, is a member of the faculty of the Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and teaches in the school's graduate concentration on administration and community practice. Focusing on the development of social work practice in community health, particularly in the integration of health and social services, he serves as the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority Medicaid endowed professor and professor of social work. Moxley came to the University of Oklahoma from Wayne State University in Detroit, where, for over 20 years, he served on the faculty of the School of Social Work. With considerable experience in action research, Moxley combines inquiry with technical assistance to grassroots community service organizations – entities that have global significance, are emerging rapidly given the numerous challenges societies face in the provision of social and human services, and form the backbone of social innovation worldwide. His work cuts across multiple fields of human services and social welfare, including serious mental illness, developmental disabilities, youth services, and aging. The common thread is innovation in community support of people who can benefit from enhanced support in the face of multiple life challenges, which often involve serious health concerns.

One of the most critical and least studied subjects in social work administration and management is working with boards. Virtually all voluntary as well as many governmental agencies are governed by boards. Executive directors, commissioners, and chief executive officers with other titles are responsible to their boards, most of whose members are voluntary and often have little if any exposure to social welfare policies and practices. Social work managers are hired, evaluated, and, all too often, dismissed by their governing boards. Ultimately, the boards govern all aspects of the organization's functions. When properly deployed, boards are able to achieve institutional development and change. David Moxley, a long time student of social work management issues, presents an excellent new work on the development of boards, especially boards for grassroots organizations. NASW and Dr. Moxley provide an important addition to social work literature with this book.

Leon Ginsberg
Editor, Administration in Social Work