It’s April. Do you know who your new board members will be?

It’s April. Do you know who your new board members will be?

Many nonprofits end their fiscal year on June 30. And for most, that’s also when board members change over. That means it’s very likely you’re going to have a few new board members.

Do you know who you’re going to ask to join the board?

If you’re typical of many nonprofit organizations, you’ve waited until now – two months before the annual meeting – to look for new board members. Your nominating committee is tasked with rounding up likely prospects and inviting them onto the board.

For some of your prospects, it’s the first time they’ve even thought about the possibility of joining you. And they have to give your committee an answer in less than a week. For others, they’re just itching to get on the board and tell you everything you’ve been doing wrong.

Of course, it’s also possible you’ve done some homework, and know about ‘getting the right people on the bus.

But what questions do you ask to find out if they’re the right people?  Whether they have an accounting practice or a legal degree is simple to find out. But asking some key questions will let you in on their inner workings. Questions that will help you decide whether this is someone you want to work with.

“What would you like the organization to achieve while you’re on our board?”

“What will that make possible?”

 “Who will that help?”

Answers to the first question might very well be about balancing the budget or serving more clients. But the answers to the second and third questions will tell you about the candidate.

Is this someone who is thinking about your mission and why you exist? Is this someone who will partner with the rest of the board and staff in an effort to make your community better?

Consider the possibilities of having a board full of individuals who think beyond the budget. What could you achieve?

Make it Easy: Why Board Communications matter

Make it Easy: Why Board Communications matter

Why don’t the board members know all the programs you put on?

Why didn’t the board president make the fundraising calls like he promised?

It’s really not hard to understand. The people who volunteer to be on the board have other lives. They do care, it’s just that their daily routines are filled with other stuff and the board commitments haven’t found a place in those routines.

Here’s an example:

Preparing to facilitate a strategic planning retreat, I talked with the executive director about plans for getting board consensus on the way forward. In the middle of our conversation, he commented that he wished he could figure out how to get the board to understand everything the organization does.  He said the staff keeps telling them, and it’s as if the board doesn’t take in what they say.

Fast forward to the retreat, and a board member speaks up, saying she can’t work on strategy when she doesn’t have a picture of everything the organization does. Another director agrees. There are nods all around the table.  Meanwhile, the staff interjected with where the information was, and that the emails keep them up-to-date.

“Clearly,” I said, “there’s a disconnect.” So I stopped the process and asked the board members how they would like to hear from staff.

Well, it was as if a dam broke loose. Email is good, but make sure it’s set up a certain way.  The subject line has to have a deadline if you need us to do something. Let’s have a calendar where we can see at a glance what’s going on. Who’s going to be in charge of the calendar? Who will help the Executive Director translate what he wants to say into what the board will hear? Can we have a one-page fact sheet that has all the information we need?  Can you keep it up to date and in one place so we know how to get it? Who’s going to create the fact sheet? When will it be done by?

There was palpable energy and eagerness around the table, ready to work on improving communication.

Both the executive director and the board had been frustrated. Board members really wanted to be good advocates. The executive needed the directors to be advocates. But the system wasn’t in place to make it easy for them. They needed to talk to each other to figure it out. In fact, creating a successful model for internal communications became part of the strategic plan.

A few generations back, most people took in information the same way. Everyone knew exactly what to expect and where the information they needed could be found.  But in a world where you might have five generations working together between the staff and the board; a world where our boards need to reflect different views, experiences, and backgrounds; this uniformity is just not going to exist. Board members and staff have to work together to find the best way of communicating with each other.

For the board <-> executive partnership to work, start by talking about communication.

Oh, and why didn’t the board president make the fundraising calls? That was something else we had to make easy. Check it out.

I’d be happy to hear other stories of systems to make it easier for directors to fulfill their obligations. Let me know, at or 302.463.0327.


2015 Top Time Management Tip

Doesn’t it seem like the main reason we go to sleep is to give our email boxes time to refill? Overnight, they fill with advice and articles about time management.

Whether it’s Harvard Business Review or NonProfit Times or any of a myriad of consultants and software companies, tips and tricks show up by the bucketsful in our Outlook and LinkedIn feeds. A Google search on the term “time management tips” turns up approximately 535,000 hits! The sheer number of electrons spent on the topic tells us just how out of control we feel.   As a self-professed control freak, I empathize.

But aren’t they false promises? We can’t manage time. Time just is. We all have the same amount of time.

What we can manage is our attention.  What do we pay attention to? What do we consider important enough to do first? In strategic planning, of course, that means setting milestones and holding people accountable. It’s incredibly helpful in getting our board and staff to focus on goals.

But we still have to spend some time keeping up with new developments. Otherwise, we risk falling behind in our field.

  • How do we know the latest best practice?
  • What are thought leaders saying?
  • Which blogs are most relevant to nonprofit governance?
  • Which writers have the best insights on board <–> CEO partnership?

Sometimes it seems like just more stuff to worry about and take our attention away from our goals.

One way I gain control is to let others do it for me. I follow a few people whom I know have their fingers on the pulse of what’s important to me. I don’t have to follow all the blogs they follow, because they separate the wheat from the email dashboard choiceschaff and only repost what they think is relevant.  Colleague Beth Kanter says that

“Content curators provide a customized, vetted selection of the best and most relevant resources on a very specific topic or theme.”

By relying on others, I know I miss a few good articles. But that loss is far outweighed by the time I gain by not scanning absolutely everything – not to mention the sanity I’ve kept by not trying to.

How do you find your curators?  Ask your peers.

In fact, let’s ask each other – right now. Let’s crowdsource the best sources so we each don’t  have to wade through everything to find the gems.

If you tell me the most important resources you use for keeping up in nonprofit board and management issues, I’ll compile a list and post it so you can see what your peers are following.

Here’s two to start:

What should I add?  Tell me what you follow and why. No one person can follow it all, so let’s learn from the ‘wisdom in the room.’

To contribute to the list, for more about board governance and nonprofit management, or to sign up for updates email me at Susan Detwiler, or go to

Presume Good Will – redux

Presume Good Will – redux

It’s hard to write a blog post in December without somehow bringing in the winter festivals.  They are hard to ignore. Whether we observe a festival or not, we get caught up in end-of-year fundraising appeals; endless staff, neighborhood, organization and family parties; last minute shopping, travel and cooking.

Yet with all this busyness, it is also a time when, regardless of your faith, it is a little easier to see the good will in others.

So today I refer to an earlier essay on Presuming Good Will. Originally written in 2010, the message still resonates.

No one is on a board of trustees because she wants to see the agency die. No one is on a board of directors because he wants to run it into the ground.
There may be strong disagreements, but it’s important to assume the disagreement is based on good intentions, and presume good will on the
part of the ‘other.’

Let’s use this time of year to really see the good will in our colleagues, friends and family. Let’s recognize that we can all agree that we want what’s best for our organization, even if we may not agree on what that best is.

Then let’s bring this perspective with us into the new year, and remember the good will we share as we build towards our respective visions for our communities.

If you are celebrating a holiday this season, I hope that it is warm and meaningful. If not, may you find the time to enjoy the lights and festivities that others provide.

Happy New Year!


Learn more on building a team out of your board members, and bringing together board and staff at or reach me at

Can you Blend Millennials and Boomers?

Can you Blend Millennials and Boomers?

Congratulations!  You’ve built a board with members of every decade of adult life. You have 20-somethings, 50-somethings, 70-somethings, and every decade in between.

Now, how do you strategically take advantage of the fresh ideas while integrating them into existing relationships?

Losing institutional knowledge has dramatic consequences. Leonard, Swap and Barton researched the consequences in corporations, with great lessons for nonprofits.  Losing the knowledge of a resident board expert can mean losing key relationships with donors, losing key background on why the community is wary of the agency, not knowing whom to call in important government offices, missing important foundation meet and greets. These relationships were built up over time and the proverbial Rolodex – or CRM – can’t help.

By having a spread of ages on the board, you’ve made these consequences a lot less likely. Since you didn’t wait until all the incumbents retired, you now have a fertile field for collaboration between old and new. Make mentoring a new board member part of the portfolio of existing members and you take a step in the right direction. Ask board members to take new members with them when they meet with donors, foundations and community representatives.

Don’t be afraid that this implies to the world that the older board member is on the way out. Not at all – quite the opposite. It conveys to the community that you have succession planning built into the ethos of the agency. It builds trust. It builds confidence in the longevity of the organization. When the older member leaves the board, the new member already has a budding relationship with the foundation.
Internally, pairing new and returning board members builds trust between them. It’s hard to view an older member as a dinosaur when you’ve spent time with her one-on-one and learned her philosophy of building relationships. It’s hard to view a new member as an upstart when you’ve spent time hearing his new ideas and exchanged thoughts on how to execute them.

The relationships continue when the older board members leave. The trust they’ve built allows newer board members to continue calling on retired members, keeping them engaged. It’s a win-win-win for the organization, the board, and the individuals involved.

Putting different generations on a board together is a great first step. Building a team out of them requires strategic thought, but the benefits are manifold.

For more about nonprofit succession planning, board education and facilitation, go to, or get in touch with me directly at If you have an experience to share, let me know!

Two Leadership Gems from the Military

Two Leadership Gems from the Military

It’s human nature to group people and stick a label on them. We segment out individuals who are donors as being different from other people. We talk about ‘donor relations’ as if that’s distinct from building a relationship with everyone, regardless of who they are. Too often, though, we forget that this is just shorthand for real people.

Recently, Harvard Business Review blogger John Michel did an excellent job of explaining the positive impact of focusing on people and not their roles, in his post A Military Leader’s Approach to Dealing with Complexity.  It made me revisit a post of my own, C’mon People It’s Not Donor Relations, and consider implications for board leaders.

Donor relations are people relations. Just like employee relations are people relations, volunteer relations are people relations, and board relations are people relations. Any time we interact with another individual we are in relationship with that person.

Michel’s post includes two gems that strongly correlate with board leadership, and the impact of the relationship between people who serve on nonprofit boards and people who are on the frontline of delivering the nonprofit’s mission.

, if you focus on people instead of their roles, it promotes their inclusion when you craft your vision.

Or, as Michel writes:

Making inclusivity a priority will increase ownership, enhance motivation, improve information sharing, and result in leaders making wiser, more informed choices.”

We’re all aware of trustees who operate in an ivory tower and create strategic plans without involving the people who are actually charged with executing that plan. Remembering that employees are people with their own ideas and thoughts makes it easier to bring them into the process.

Build your vision in pencil, instead of ink, so you can be flexible enough to hear and incorporate the ideas of staff and increase the buy-in of everyone involved. Increased buy-in leads to increased success.

, remember that every single interaction has an impact. Every spoken or written word and every non-verbal communication becomes a part of the whole image of who you are. Relationships are a result of both conscious communications AND unconscious communications.  Every time a member of the board speaks to the person on the frontline, that conversation has an impact. All the more so when the communication is nonverbal. That’s when the leader is less conscious of what she is ‘saying.’

As Michel writes:

“Effective leaders understand that every interaction is a potentially powerful means of nurturing a relationship, eliminating an obstruction to progress, or reinforcing trust.”

John Michel based his observations on his experience in the military, relaying the impact of interpersonal relationships when confronting complexity.  The situations and scale may differ but the principle is the same. People matter. Relationships matter.

Building relationships is a fundamental tool to make sure that when you lead, others will follow.

Have you seen the impact of leaders who build relationships? Or the impact of those who don’t build relationships? Let me know!

And I’d love to have a conversation about how your strategic planning can successfully include staff, board, volunteers and community.  Contact me at