OFF THE PITCH: The Critical Flaw in Our Boards of Directors

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Is the non-profit model for youth soccer clubs fatally flawed?

This week’s goalWA.net “Off the Pitch” column by Ruth Nicholson looks at a key source of dysfunction in the volunteer boards of directors that govern our youth soccer clubs. Ruth is an internationally-certified facilitator, organizational alchemist, and the founder of GO!, the expert resource for youth sports governance and operations.

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by Ruth Nicholson

Several my coaching colleagues hold the belief that the non-profit model for youth sports clubs is incorrect and that clubs should be for-profit organizations and abolish their dysfunctional boards of directors. The discussion fascinates me.

When I founded GO!, my vision was to create an affordable, online resource that could help youth sports clubs improve off the field so they could better support players and coaches on the field. To my astonishment, since the launch of GO!, my more expensive consulting client load has exploded! The majority of the issues these clients in crisis are facing are related to flaws in their non-profit boards of directors, club leadership, and organizational management.

What is going on? Is the non-profit model and its dependency on volunteer boards of directors for governance and important leadership fatally flawed?

The Second Deadly Challenge

Many leagues, regional, and national organizations require clubs hold non-profit status in order to be a member and compete in competitions. In addition, non-profit status can be helpful financially to avoid taxes and garner donations, grants, and sponsorships. It also invites general community support.

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The second deadly challenge for youth sports clubs is

It takes forever to make a decision or get something done,

especially with our committees and board of directors.”

There are two major reasons behind this challenge. One is rooted in group dynamics. The other is a pervasive conflict of interest that is inherent in how we have structured our boards of directors in youth sports.

The group dynamics challenge is that it typically takes longer for a group to make a decision than for a single individual or leader to make a decision. However, that time savings may not also garner the support needed from others in the organization to implement the decision effectively. In contrast, the process of how a group makes a decision can require different amounts of time. Voting can be a quick decision-making method. It also can create winners and losers and result in varying degrees of support for the decision and its implementation. Decision making by consensus can increase the degree of support for a decision and often takes more time.

So, the balancing act for decision making in a non-profit is dependent on how much time is required to involve the right people and end up with meaningful support for decisions and their implementation.

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The Danger of Dysfunction

The second major reason underlying the Second Deadly Challenge is less visible and causes more problems: boards of directors are largely comprised of people who are also the clients, and sometimes employees, of our clubs. Sometimes board members are parents of players in the club. Sometimes they are coaches. Sometimes they are operations staff or key administrative volunteers.

The three secrets to a successful club live within the balance and partnership between

  • High-quality coaching and coaching support,
  • Efficient operations that make the best use of staff and volunteers to administratively support players and coaches, and
  • Effective governance and leadership – the board of directors – that provides support and direction for the club and its programs.

When our roles and skills overlap, we create danger zones for conflicts of interest and playing out of position if we are not functioning as a collaborative off-field team. Although each person comes with their individual perspectives, skills, and other roles, when acting in the role of board member, the role is club leadership, finance, policy, and personnel. The board member role is not designing the details of the coaching program (a coaching role), advocating for an individual team or player (a coach or parent role), or lobbying for a specific team training field or practice time (an operations/administrative role).

The question is not IF there is a conflict of interest. The question is WHEN that conflict of interest will arise for an individual board member who is also a parent, coach, or staff/volunteer and how will it be handled.

Effectively addressing these situations requires the ability to identify the overlaps in roles. The ability to identify the overlaps in roles also includes acknowledging the knowledge and experience of the people on our boards of directors, coaching cadres, operations staff, and administrative volunteers. It means managing our egos, trusting in the skills of others, and sometimes letting go of the “perfect” in favor of the “good”. It means thinking more broadly about the players’ needs and the club’s needs instead of simply WIIFM (What’s In It For Me).

Tips for Improving Your Board of Directors

  • Hold an annual orientation and training for your board of directors that includes an explanation of the role of the board and its members, how to recognize conflicts of interest, and the critical importance of incorporating the expertise and recommendations of directors of coaching and other professionals into their strategic planning, budgeting, and business decisions.
  • Create an approach for addressing sticky issues or conflicts when they involve a board member in their official board capacity and in another one of their roles, such as a parent of a player or a volunteer coach of a team. This may include a recusal policy or a way to temporarily transfer an individual board member’s responsibilities to someone else while an issue is being resolved.
  • Develop a board succession plan to actively and strategically recruit board members who are members of the community with valuable skills, such as fundraising, journalism/social media, or human resources, who do not coach or have children playing for the club. Expanding the diversity of people on a board of directors can enhance board effectiveness and reduce the possibility of frustrating situations and conflicts of interest.

Ruth Nicholson is the founder of GO!, a 24/7 resource and training platform offering youth soccer organizations proven leadership and administrative tools. Since its launch in mid-2017, Ruth and the GO! staff have fielded inquiries and worked with coaches, clubs, state associations and leagues in 19 North American states and provinces, as well as others in Europe, South America, Australia and Africa.

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