“A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done.” Fred Allen
“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.” Milton Berle
Then there’s this rubber stamp I was given, that said,
“Great idea! Assign a committee to foul it up!”
There is an image of nonprofit board committees as the place where ideas go to die a slow and lingering death; where process overcomes inspiration; where group-think strangles innovation.
But if you’re running an organization, it’s really hard to get anything done if you can’t segment off a group of people to work on specific jobs. How do you get people to work on these jobs? You invite them. Nicely.
The problem with committees is that word: “commit”.
That’s especially true in today’s society. Sometimes I feel so rushed and overwhelmed, that the thought of taking on another commitment sends me screaming in the other direction –Noooooo!!!!! You mean, I have to come to meetings and be obligated for two whole years???
But if someone said to me, “Hey, Janay has this great idea; Jim and I are going to help her make it happen. Can you join us?” my answer is probably going to at least lead to a query for more information.
Asking someone to join the Finance Committee might be deadly. Asking someone to help figure out the best way to maximize the dollars we have available for our mission…? Well, that’s intriguing.
Being offered an idea for engaging new supporters and telling them to give the idea to a committee is disheartening. Being asked to explore the idea with others and generate ways to make it work is an invitation.
Committees aren’t inherently bad. It’s how we ask people to serve that creates the deadly atmosphere surrounding them.
Invite people to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.
Let’s change the conversation.
This is based on a January 2014 post. It bears repeating!
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Face it. People don’t always do what they’ve promised to do.
They mean it when they promise. They believe in the cause, and they truly believe they will accomplish the task they’ve agreed to do. Board members and program volunteers alike. They’re committed. They know it’s important.
So why don’t they actually do it?!?!
Life gets in the way. Your volunteers and board members don’t eat, sleep and breathe your mission the way your staff does. Their time frame is different from yours. Boards meet monthly or quarterly. If you’re the CEO, you’re on a daily time frame. Your board members eat sleep and breathe their own work.
So as CEOs and senior staff we rant, vent and resent that our board members need to be reminded about their reports (aren’t they grownups??) and we sigh in exasperation that our trustees haven’t made their friendraising calls (don’t they know how important this is???).
Actually, they do know how important it is. And they feel badly when they don’t follow through. But their urgent takes precedence over your necessary. No matter what the level of volunteer, our cause is just one aspect of their lives.
What’s a board president (or executive director) to do?
That’s a great question. Why don’t you ask them?
Janice, I know plan to get the board reports online a week before the next board meeting. What will it make it possible for you to do that? What do you need?
DeShon, I really appreciate your commitment to make 4 friendraising calls each week. What will make it possible for you to do that? What do you need from us?
For every end result we want, some things have to happen first. Sometimes we have to set the stage. Our volunteers may not be thinking that way. The questions:
“What will make it possible for you to do that?” and
“What do you need?”
starts the mind thinking of what those necessary things are. They may say something like, “remind me on Wednesday.” Or, “can you give me some actual words to say on the call?” Or “actually, this isn’t a great week for me, but can you sit with me on Saturday and help make those first calls?”
Whatever it is, it’s a lot more productive than ranting, and you and they have a path forward.
Now you can think about what to do with that extra energy.
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Does your staff know what the board does? Really?
In conversations with emerging professionals, I find they often haven’t a clue what the point of a board is. Frankly, I sometimes get that question from Executive Directors, too [but that’s a whole ‘nother issue].
Passionate people working for you.
Right now, I want to talk about the staff. The young professionals. The people you rely on at the front lines to deliver your mission.
Most of them care about the mission. They care about why you exist. Many of them care deeply and passionately. It’s not just a job. Unfortunately, they often lack a big picture of the entire organization as a unified entity, supported by the volunteer board of directors.
They don’t see how they fit into the scheme of the whole organization. Looking upwards, their view often stops at the program manager, director, vice president, or perhaps the executive director level. They don’t even see the board. If they do see the board, its purpose is hazy.
Worse, that view of the board is often negative.
How do you portray the board to your staff? How often do you say things like,
- “The board said we have to do it this way.”
- “We can’t afford it because the board didn’t approve the budget.”
- “The board retreat is coming up and we have to make sure our presentations are perfect.”
What messages do these statements deliver?
The board is demanding,
doesn’t understand their realities
and is only worried about dollars.
Even if staff members can parrot back the purpose of a board, do they understand the ramifications and significance for their work?
What would be different if the staff knew that board members care as much as they do about the mission? That the board makes decisions with the future in mind?
What would be different if the board was transparent in why certain decisions are made? Not because you don’t have the funding, but because the funding is supporting the mission in other ways.
What would be different if staff understood that board members were doing their damnedest to make sure they had the resources to do great things?
Five ways to start building a better view.
- Reframe how you speak about board decisions. Instead of blaming the board for unpopular decisions, or acting like popular decisions are a surprise success, put the decisions into context, including the considerations taken into account.
- Introduce individual board members to the staff. Give staff members an opportunity to meet and get to know the board as a collection of individuals, rather than a monolithic, enigmatic entity.
- Include information about the board in employee orientations. Integrate the board into the organization chart, with information about its purpose – not just as the last resort for employee grievances.
- Invite staff members to sit in on open board meetings. Board meetings are frequently open, but staff may not believe they would be welcome. Even if employees don’t attend, the fact of the invitation is an indicator of welcome.
- Consider mentorships between board members and staff. While young employees are frequently mentored by senior employees, board members often have special skills they may be willing to impart.
Each contact between board and staff builds a greater rapport, and a greater respect on each side.
Its a simple start to a new year of building the trust needed for accepting and working with hard decisions and new opportunities.
May 2018 be a year of harmony, respect and trust!
(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It happens all the time, especially when a board is transitioning from a working board to a governing board. The organization grows. It gets more complicated. Board members used to being involved in everything have trouble releasing the details and focusing on the bigger picture.
If the role of the board is to focus on mission and not minutiae, what will make that possible?
What will make it possible to pay special attention to the financial oversight role? Staying informed is important, but the specifics of watching the checkbook and investments; researching where funds should be invested; and drafting financial policies are not everyone’s forté. The specific, detailed work that goes into reviewing the current financials, the research, and the drafting are more easily done by a smaller group of people with financial literacy.
What will make it possible to completely revamp your community relations? Each board member has a role to play in advocacy and public relations, but developing the plan takes expertise. Identifying opportunities for board participation, PR outlets, messaging, advocacy timeline are more easily accomplished by a smaller group of people with community relations and advocacy experience.
Far from removing responsibility from the board, committees are vehicles for building the board by:
- Engaging board members more closely in important work that intimately and explicitly uses their expertise. Why did Carlos come on the board in the first place? What’s his passion and talent? Let him loose!
- Creating opportunities for recruiting strong board members, who have an interest in the organization and now have experience with the organization. Not sure if Jenna is a good fit? Invite her to help on a committee! After working together, she can decide whether she wants to be more involved, and you can see if she’d do well on the board.
- Strengthening the board knowledge base by bringing in individuals who don’t want board service but who want to offer their expertise. Is Shenay an HR lawyer with a heavy travel schedule? A board position may not fit her life right now, but she may be happy to provide guidance on a committee.
- Bolstering long-term engagement and retaining institutional memory and by including board members rotating off the board. Did Max roll off the board after two full terms? It’s a shame to lose his passion and his relationships. Is he a good fit for the community relations committee?
- Enhancing staff – board interactions. Board members typically have little direct experience with staff. But Board member Howard and program director Lisette together research what it will take to develop the metrics they need.
- Streamlining board meetings so the full board can focus on strategy and direction instead of minutiae. With functioning committees, Maureen can chair the board meetings knowing that the background research on the strategic issues has been done. There are people at the table who can answer relevant questions, and the full board can spend time on discussing the implications.
Engage board members, staff and passionate newcomers on committees that use their talents and interests. It’s a pathway to a more engaged and strategic board.
Now…and in the future.
When you recruit for your board, do you tell them that all they have to do is show up to meetings, read some reports, and vote on some things?
Or do you challenge them to be active participants?
In the for-profit world, it’s recognized that promoting human values can be inspirational. As Sue Bingham wrote in SmartBlog,
“To create an inspired, high-performing workforce, leaders should promote five basic human values: positive assumptions, trust, inclusion, challenge, and recognition.”
But you can’t cherry-pick among the values. Employees can’t trust each other if they’re not included in the conversations. They won’t be challenged if you have negative assumptions about their abilities. They don’t feel valued if you don’t recognize their passion and skills.
The same is true for your board members. If motivated employees achieve more when the bar is set high, how much more might this be true for individuals who volunteer for a cause in which they believe?
It begins with recruitment.
A board of motivated individuals starts before they join the board. How you recruit board members makes a difference in how successful your organization can be. When you first approach a prospective board member:
- Can you articulate the purpose of your organization – your WHY?
- Can you articulate what the board is trying to do?
- Do you show prospective board members the latest strategic plan and ask what they think?
- Do you ask them how they want to contribute to its success?
- Do you tell them about the excellent people they’ll be working with if they join the board?
- Do you ask them to share what it is in their own life journey that makes them passionate about your cause?
Asking questions like these engages your prospective board members in the future of the organization. It sets them up to be active participants in the work of the board.
Then, at the start of their board service, give them the opportunity to share their answers with each other and the existing members of the board. Magnify the engagement and ask existing members to share as well. Far from a touchy-feely exercise, shared stories build trust and camaraderie that carries through to working together.
Then challenge them to set their bars high. Your new board members – and the existing board members – are motivated to achieve the plans. Together, they can find ways to surpass any turbulence they might encounter in their execution.
For more tips about building an engaged board, strategic planning, and board-executive partnership, follow me at www.detwiler.com, or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’re smart, you’re passionate, and you know a lot of people.
Chances are, sooner or later, you’re going to be asked to sit on the board of a nonprofit.
Before you say yes, here are some conversation starters to help you make up your mind:
Tell me about the organization:
- Why do you exist?
- What’s your vision for 5 years from now? 10 years from now? What mountain are you trying to climb?
- What are you most proud of?
Tell me about the board:
- Who’s around the table?
- Does everyone have the same vision?
- Does everyone participate in making that vision a reality?
Tell me about your board meetings:
- What do you talk about at the meetings?
- How often do you talk about the future?
- Are your financial discussions about what you can’t do, or about what you’re going to do with the money you raise?
There’s nothing wrong with joining a board that desperately needs your help. You just might be the addition they need to turn the corner and begin imagining what they CAN do, instead of what they can’t.
And it can be exciting to join a visionary board. You have the opportunity to create the future with others who face forward.
Just be sure which one you’re doing!