Time to Sharpen the Saw for Boards as Well

Garth Nowland-Foreman

There is a traditional American folk tale about a wood-cutter who was always in a hurry to cut down his quota of trees. This one day he was making no progress and was just getting more and more frustrated. A stranger came upon him in the forest and immediately saw what the problem was, “Your saw is blunt. That is why it is making no progress in cutting down the tree.” The tree-cutter replied that he knew, but he didn’t have time to stop and sharpen the saw, as he would have to stop sawing, and he had a tight deadline. So he kept sawing with his blunt saw getting more and more frustrated, until he collapsed exhausted from his effort still having made no progress at the end of the day.

As non-profits, we often see investing in our own training and development as a luxury, that we may never have time or money to get around to – oblivious to the fact that if only we ‘wasted’ some time and money and effort on ‘sharpening the saw’ we may actually be more effective in achieving our goals – and be less exhausted at the end of the day. This is especially so with investing in our own leadership development – and no different for the ultimate leaders of any non-profit – our board members.

Boards may be among those who are paid the least, and spend the least time around the organisation, but that doesn’t diminish in any way that it’s with the board that our accountability and leadership ‘buck’ stops. In non-profits, we need to have a plan and be as prepared to invest in our board members’ leadership, as for our manager or CEO.

Chait, Ryan and Taylor (2005), identified the need to reframe the work of non-profit boards as leadership. It’s not enough just to be clear about allocation of roles; boards need a clear purpose and to be working on ‘what matters’ in a non-profit.

They need to be able to move beyond just the fiduciary tasks (ensuring compliance and stopping bad things from happening), and even the strategic tasks (ensuring the non-profit is organised to actually get some things done), to also what Chait, Ryan and Taylor call the generative tasks of governance.  These are checking if there may be other ways to ‘frame’ or understand the problems to be addressed, making sure the organisation is asking the right questions, and working in the best way to achieve its vision, mission and values.

In the most effective non-profits, boards are a key part of the leadership equation, and I don’t see most of us getting there just by working more furiously and exhausting ourselves. We need to stop for a moment and ‘sharpen the saw’ for boards as well as staff and other volunteers.

A summary of Chait, Ryan & Taylor (2005) Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of the Nonprofit Board, is available at: