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!
Campaigns, Caucuses, Primaries & Promises……
It’s the quadrennial Presidential election season, and everyone wants your vote.
While a contested election may be good for the country, doing the same for your nonprofit just distracts you from delivering your mission.
Especially if your entire organization is committed to the same mission and your whole board supports the strategic plan.
Then what makes a good nominee for president? What makes a good nominee for ANY officer on your board? These are the questions your nominating committee should answer.
Before asking WHO, figure out what your president needs to do the job.
Here are a few questions to start you off:
- What level of commitment and drive does our president need, in order to keep our plan on track?
- What skills does our president need to be able to keep our board focused on the future?
- What kind of president <-> CEO relationship will make it possible for us to achieve our goals?
- What specific knowledge should our president have upon entering the role, and what knowledge can be acquired on the job?
Only after answering those questions, should you start seeking a president from among your board members. Because then you’ll know how to evaluate whether they’re ready for the job.
Similar questions can be asked about any board officer position. What questions would YOU ask, before contemplating a new secretary, treasurer, vice president?
You probably spent time and money developing a strategic plan. Your board voted to approve it. Perhaps a board committee created it; maybe your executive director and senior staff.
Where is it now? That big report sitting on the shelf isn’t going to do your organization any good if it’s not a living document.
When did you last pull out the strategic plan and track your progress toward your goals? When was the last time the board spent more than 10 minutes discussing that progress?
It’s a lovely plan, but…..
A plan without discrete steps, a timeline and accountability isn’t a plan. It’s a wish list. Here are a few tips for maintaining your progress, so that 3 years from now you can look back and say, “We did this!”
- Make sure you have the will to accomplish the plan. This may seem obvious, but it’s often the first pitfall. “It’s a lovely plan, and really, this is what we want to accomplish. But…..we don’t have the money; the time; the people; the skills”…..whatever. If you truly commit to the plan, then you find the money, the time, the people, the skills. It may not happen immediately, but it will never happen without making that commitment.
- Make sure that someone is accountable for each step of the plan. They may not be the person who actually, physically does the work, but someone has to be on top of whether it happens or not. Otherwise, everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.
- Have those accountable people regularly report to the board. The entire board voted to move ahead with the plan; the entire board should be invested in whether the plan is being accomplished. If you have to report regularly, then you get it done. If it’s not done, then here’s your opportunity to talk about how to get back on track.
“If anything is certain, it is that change is certain. The world we are planning for today will not exist in this form tomorrow.” Phil Crosby
- Regularly set aside time to discuss the overall progress, not just individual steps. Is the plan still relevant? Do new circumstances warrant changes? No matter how good your plan is, you can’t foresee everything that might happen in the course of three years. The government may cut funding. You may receive a huge bequest. Some new research may come to light.
- Celebrate the milestones. It took a lot of work to craft the plan. It takes even more work to execute it. Recognize that work and what you accomplish. Tell your stakeholders about your progress. Let these celebrations create momentum to lead you to even higher heights.
Engage your board in keeping the strategic plan a living document. It may sit on a shelf, but it won’t get dusty. You’ll regularly reference it in board meetings, and watch the progress toward your goals. Potential board members will see your commitment, and want to be a part of your growth.
Theodor Herzl wrote,
“If you will it, it is no dream. And if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay.”
The first step is commitment. If you have the will, you can accomplish the rest.
My board doesn’t focus on important things; we spend half our meetings rehashing old votes or talking about the cost of office supplies, and then the last 10 minutes on something that affects the entire organization.
Some of the fault lies in board culture, but there ARE ways to tweak board meetings to move the focus toward the future.
Here are seven ways to manage board meetings so your time focuses on substantive discussion and issues:
- Put Mission & Vision at the top of the agenda. That way, any member can refer to the mission during a discussion: “How will this decision move our mission forward?”
- Begin with a mission inspiration. Renew your energy by starting with an inspiring story about the organization; it affirms that your work is important.
- No more than two important topics at a single meeting. If the topic is important, give it the attention it deserves. Announce discussion topics in advance so board members come prepared.
- Send needed information at least 2 days in advance. Give board members time to absorb important information and formulate their thoughts and questions. Create the conditions for a more informed discussion.
- Return topics to committee if you can’t come to a conclusion. If it looks like the matter needs more thought, let the committee do more research and refine the proposal. Discussion without sufficient information invites frustration, bad decisions – and very long meetings.
- Only revisit decisions when things change. Decisions can change if you get new information or circumstances change, but merely rehashing decisions takes time and energy away from a focus on the future.
- Restate decisions and commitments before adjourning. Give the group a positive charge to go out into the world and be proud of your past and future accomplishments. Simply state what you decided in the meeting, and the commitments you each made.
Individual board members may differ in how ready they are to accept these suggestions. But the ultimate goal – focusing on the future – is a worthy one. So take the incremental steps toward focused meetings, and watch the board reenergize!
Do you have more tips? Put them in the comments, so we can all share in your wisdom! Or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
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 email@example.com or 302.463.0327.