During my time as an Executive Director, I met with dozens of fellow Directors in trainings and courses. Whenever a group of us would sit in a room, the conversation would almost always turn to one thing: Boards. People would discuss the challenges of Boards being too involved and micromanaging, or totally hands off and not involved enough. There were founders on the Board with Founder’s Syndrome, and always that one challenging Board member who took over the room and controlled the conversation. There were Boards that weren’t strategic enough to creatively address challenges, and those who lacked the skill sets to respond to all the needs of the organization. There were Boards who weren’t visionary and set in the way things “have always been,” and others with unrealistic expectations of growth for the work. You don’t have to be a Director to know this dynamic…you may be a Board member and see these challenges too.
In the nonprofit world, the Board sets the tone for the work. They are our advocates to the community, our fundraisers, and our mission-setters. They should also provide the Executive Director with the support needed to fulfill the duties of leadership in the work. They have an enormous capacity to grow the organization and set strategic direction. Boards are the heartbeat of an organization. Their strength and health impacts the whole body of work.
But of course you already know this. The challenge is getting your Board to the place where they are ready, willing and capable to fully embrace their role.
Oftentimes as an Executive Director, we struggle to push back on our Board because they are our bosses, and are ultimately the decision-makers for many key matters in the work. But the reality is that YOU (if you are the Director) are the one on the ground every day doing the work and can see the big picture of the organization, and how the Board can best fit into it. Your leadership with the Board will help set the tone and shape the culture of the group. You can lead the Board while also empowering them to lead. And remember: they are volunteers. So as the full-time paid staff leader of the organization, it is absolutely in your job duties to empower, equip, and support your Board’s development.
This article is written for Executive Directors, but will also offer Board leadership tips and tools to get you moving and your heart beating faster and stronger.
- Always Orient New Members. Board member orientation is often overlooked and yet it is what sets the stage for new Board members’ participation. A 2 or 3-hour orientation is often sufficient. Work alongside a few of your existing Board members to develop the orientation, which is great leadership development in itself. Board orientations can include: history of the organization; review of the Strategic Plan and current programs and success stories; opportunities and challenges for the organization (a mini SWOT analysis can lead to great discussion…and the new Board member can chime in with ideas!); review roles and responsibilities of a Board; Detailed information about how the board does its work regarding meetings, committees, policy-making, board-staff relations, and decision-making flow. This is also a great time for the new members to connect with you and the Board members leading the training.
- Read! There are thousands of articles, books, newsletters, and other resources on Board development. Get out there and start reading. See what others are saying about healthy Board culture and get inspired to move your Board in the right direction. Find tools and resources to provide directly to your Board for their own reading and review. Board Source is always a great place to start (www.bourdsource.com).
- Meet one-on-one with your Board members. Too many nonprofit Directors see their Board members just once a month (or every other month) at the Board meeting. How can you expect to work as a team when you haven’t created a space for relationship building and deeper conversation? As the Director or Board Chair, take each Board member out a few times during the year (depending on the size of your Board this will vary). You will likely meet more frequently with your Board leadership and committee chairs, but don’t overlook the value of taking any of them out for a coffee or glass of wine. Always re-engage them in why they are a part of the work, and get their feedback on ways the organization and Board can grow. You’ll be amazed at how much more willing people are to share thoughts and even take leadership roles when they are first engaged in a relaxed and personal setting.
- Cultivate Your Relationship with the Board Chair. The relationship between the Board Chair and Executive Director is perhaps the most important relationship in the entire organization. Work to cultivate honesty, develop a feedback system (on both ends) and think together about the big questions for the organization. Share your concerns and successes closely with this person, and set a vision together for the full Board. If your relationship is toxic or challenging with your Board Chair, do what you can to manage the relationship and maintain at least a basic level of respect. Utilize other members of your Executive Board leadership to provide that support, and always keep in mind term limits to eventually get the right person in that role.
- Find Your Allies. There is nothing worse than feeling alone in the desire a stronger Board. Hopefully, your Board Chair is in line with your vision for growth and development, but also seek to find others on the Board who share the vision to have an engaged, active and healthy Board. Encourage them to speak up at Board meetings and work alongside them to grow their leadership skills so that you have partners in the effort of Board development.
- Structure Board meetings to cultivate development. These folks have given their time to volunteer on your organization’s Board, and they certainly won’t feel their time is being used well if they are simply listening to two hours of reporting at your monthly meetings. Use a “dashboard” to highlight the month’s program victories and challenges (x number of meals served, A,B,C grants were written and submitted). Send out written reports a week ahead of time to highlight additional qualitative reporting. Limit discussion of the day-to-day managing of the organization’s activities; they hired you to execute those functions and need to trust they are moving forward (with, of course, a clear reporting system to ensure healthy oversight). Instead, structure in time for meaningful discussion around important topics that are facing the organization. Bring in a partner and fit in a Board development training every once in awhile (i.e. how to give an elevator pitch on the work, better understanding how to read financials, etc.). Use the Board meetings as a space to encourage healthy discussion, build skills, and cultivate greater understanding of their role as the Board.
- Bring in an Outsider. Sometimes, at the end of the day, you need someone else to say the things you’ve been trying to say all along. Bring in a consultant to offer training and guide discussion on the role of a nonprofit Board. You can often talk to your funders about small one-time grants to support capacity building like a Board retreat. It is in your funders’ interests to see your organization succeed and your Board health is a key component of that health. If you can’t find the money, consider asking an Executive Director or Board Chair of a partner organization to offer the training for no or little cost. But just make sure that their Board is in fact a healthy one and they can share helpful and challenging insight!
- Have Patience. Boards don’t change overnight. Offer the support and guidance that you can, and know that your leadership will eventually take root and result in the right Board members staying or joining, and the wrong Board members stepping back. With determination and a lot of intentional work, you will help support the development of a board that will truly allow your organization to thrive!