Looking At Boards Through a Different Lens

GlassesStaff I was never so good with, but when I ran nonprofits or headed up the development department, one of my great joys was working with the Board.  I have friends who think that is a sign of a sick mind, but, listen, these are people who because they care about the work you do want to help you do it better.  And then do it on their own nickel and give generously of their time.

And yes.  Like you, I had board members who focused not on strategy but on minutiae; not on governance but on micromanaging, and who thought that fundraising was meant for someone else to do and someone else to give.

I wasn’t naïve enough to think that I could actually change these board members, but what I did know was that I could educate them, and knowledge and understanding would make them change themselves.

It worked.  And in the 10 years that I’ve been consulting, I’ve seen it work with countless boards.  Not in a four-hour board retreat—at least not when that is the only education they get.

It has to start, of course, with the staff.  And just as I lecture the boards I work with not to think of fundraising as “hitting on” someone, I tell the CEO’s and other staff I work with to stop whining about their “terrible boards.”

Board members don’t blossom forth, knowing exactly what their roles and responsibilities are, and they certainly don’t come to your board understanding your organization’s specific needs.  That is the job of staff to explain, to show, to explain again, and to ensure that they have to support to do what you are asking them to do.

Now, you have to have the right board members.  That means those who are committed to the work you do.

I find it fascinating that so many nonprofit professionals think that the most important attribute of a board member is wealth.  The second is a specific skill—the law, accounting, knowledge of the sector in which you work.

Let’s consider wealth.  If I had $100 for every time a nonprofit board chose a member because of their pocketbook in the hopes that being on the board would induce that person to give, I’d be flush.  Turn that around.  Look through your database of donors for your board members.  Look for those who have been loyal donors.  Look at those who have given significant gifts.  These are the people who are screaming at you:  I CARE.

If you do identify a wealthy person who hasn’t yet given, first work to make them a donor; then work to keep them happy.  Finally, ask them to serve.

As for the other skills, the skill you need the most is a willingness to do the needed work.  The best board treasurer may not be the CPA who works for a large corporation and knows nothing about nonprofit accounting.  In truth, the best treasurer I ever worked with was a stay-at-home mom who desperately wanted to help.  She took classes in nonprofit accounting, went to meet with CFOs at other nonprofits, and made our finances understandable to our board.

Beyond that, you want a board that is diverse, a word that has become fraught.  But all it really means is that your board should be made up of people who are different from each other.  That ensures that they look at things in different ways, and have different circles of influence.  Both are critical to your organization’s success.

Most importantly is that every board member understands why they were asked, and what the expectations are.  It’s not that you take them out for coffee and explain once, it is that your board owns those expectations; they are reviewed regularly, and they are educated, empowered and supported in how they can reach and exceed what they are being asked to do.

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