Well, did you do it?
Lunching with a great colleague this week, it dawned us that we both respond well to external deadlines. We’re so bent on meeting client needs, that deadlines we set for ourselves sometimes go by the wayside.
We all do this, and nonprofit board members are no different. As we respond to the challenge…or opportunity…of the moment, we let long term goals slide. At board meetings we deal with immediate issues while our strategic plans languish with 10 minutes at the end.
The cycle continues. Each year we make plans, often repeating last years’: recruit new board members, seek best practices in hiring, expand our reach, or whatever we have identified as crucial to our growth. Yet 5 months into the year, it’s still just a plan.
I solved the problem with an accountability partner…someone who regularly asks me what I’ve done that week to further my goals. Then I commit to specific steps toward my goals, so she can ask me again.
Maybe the board needs an external accountability partner. A coach. A guide. A nudge. Someone to regularly check in with the president and the executive, help them keep board meetings focused on long term and strategic issues, and help them figure out ways to do it better. Someone to guide them through the hazard of rehashing decisions that have already been made. Perhaps a coach to help them figure out how to make sure that committee and staff work are done by committees and staff, while the board spends its valuable time focusing on mission.
Think about your own life. Making a commitment to someone else has a way of focusing our attention. Maybe we should use the same approach for our boards.
If this is an intriguing idea, contact me. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, and help you think through whether your organization might benefit from a coach.
My husband and I talk about this a lot, as we watch the daily news. People are always trying to wiggle out of responsibility for the mistakes they’ve made, the people they’ve injured, the messes that others have to clean up.
Whatever happened to “I’m Sorry?” Whatever happened to “It’s my fault?” Whatever happened to “I made a mistake, I will fix it?”
This post from Sarah Andrus says it clearly and concisely. When we make a mistake, we must own it and make reparations. Her post talks about individuals, but it’s equally true of organizations. “My Bad…” or How to Handle Mistakes With Grace
This is where a culture of ethics and accountability can make all the difference. If your organization has a culture in which individuals – both board and staff – are known to take responsibility for mistakes and are not unduly punished for them, then each person can feel more comfortable owning his or her mistakes. Honesty and integrity become the hallmarks for which you are known. The receptionist can feel proud of working for you, the donor can be proud of supporting you, your community will offer up new board members.
Think about it. If all the time and energy spent in evading responsibility were instead spent in fixing the problem and taking steps so it doesn’t happen again, then the entire organization moves forward that much faster.
Where would you rather work – where energy is spent covering it up, or where energy is spent making it right?
Where are you now?
Before 1973, no one ever asked where are you? when they reached you on the phone. Of course they knew where you were. You were within 3 feet of the telephone they had dialed (now that’s an anachronism!). Thirty years later, times have changed. Today, because of mobile phones, one of the first things we ask when we reach someone is, where are you?
Where are you? An innocuous casual question that turns quite profound when you ask it of your organization. If, in 30 years, the world has changed so we call individuals instead of a place, has your nonprofit kept pace? Do you still ask your constituents to come to your location, or do your meet them where they are? Have your programs evolved to meet the new mobility of society? Has your mission changed?
Society’s rate of change has accelerated. When was the last time your board of directors evaluated whether your programs are still relevant, much less whether your mission is? Once every 10 years isn’t enough (and maybe it never was). But certainly never shouldn’t be the answer.
In fact, maybe now is when you should ask, where are you?
Populating Your Board II: Too Many Lawyers?
Now you have a good idea of what your board should be able to do as a whole: determine Direction, set Policy, provide Oversight, and Fundraise. But what about the specific talents you need?
What wisdom should they have? What work should they know how to do? If all you have are one kind of constituent represented, how do you know that the policy and direction you set will be acceptable to all the different stakeholders? If they’re all lawyers, how do you know you’re setting good financial or technology policy?
Filling vacancies on your board is too important to leave to chance. It should be a systematic process engaged in by many minds. Create a committee of your board and have your Executive Director join you; maybe your Director of Development, as well. Together, begin the process by figuring out who has a stake in your organization’s success.
What this means is, who cares what you do and how you do it, and are these groups important to your organization? For example, your clients are a likely stakeholder group. In a food bank, that may be a food recipient; in a school, that may be the students (or their parents). Other stakeholders are less apparent. In a university based social/religious organization I once served, we decided our constituents were students, alumni, parents, faculty/administration, community members, and clergy. For long-term viability and relevance, we needed people in each decade of life – 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, etc. So we determined that as much as possible, individuals from each of these groups should be represented in our board mix. Having this mix allowed each set of stakeholders to feel that they had a say in our policy and direction, and that their point of view was being heard.
But again, if all of those stakeholders are lawyers, how do you know you’re setting good financial, human resources or technology policy? That’s when the committee and ED take a good, hard look at all the different kinds of decisions the board and executive have to make, and determine what kind of expertise you need to have on the board to make those decisions and provide oversight for their execution?
Do you have to make IT decisions? It would help to have an IT person on board. Do you have to make fiscal policy? A CPA will help. Do you have personnel decisions to make? Look for Human Resources expertise. And despite my kidding around, yes, you should have a lawyer on the board. Then look at your board and see where there are holes.
Here’s an easy way to start; open up an Excel spreadsheet and make a grid. Down the left hand column, list all the expertise you’d like to have on your board, and all the different stakeholder groups you can think of. Next, across the top of the sheet, in each column, list the name of a board member. Go down each column, and put an ‘X’ in each constituency and each expertise that particular board member can represent. Two-fers are good! A 50 year-old alumna who is a parent and also a marketing expert is a bonus. A 40 year-old community member CPA who conducts IT audits as part of his firm’s consulting practice is a nice plus.
Now, look for the holes. What expertise and constituents are you missing? Using this rough grid, you’ve made a start on figuring out the kinds of people you should seek out to join your board.
Will remaking your board happen in a single election cycle? Of course not. But by being systematic about the process, your ED and each member of the board can keep an eye out for likely prospects and your nominating committee will have good direction. When nominating time comes, your committee will have a way to think about whether an individual who is passionate about your cause can also bring something fresh to the board.
Of course, there are still some things that remain to be considered. How do you reach beyond the usual suspects? How do you go beyond the old girls’ network to find truly new people to consider? Stay tuned…that’s another post!
What should your board members be able to do?
A lot of nonprofit organizations don’t appear to systematically consider who should be on their boards and how to go about getting them. Since entire workshops are conducted on this topic, I started to write an overview. It still turned into a longer post than I anticipated, so here’s Part I. “What should your prospective board members be able to do?” More in subsequent posts!
How do you populate your board of directors? There’s always the old girls’ (or old boys’) network. That’s worked in the past, or at least you were comfortable with the people you brought on. It’s hard to argue with past success.
But I’m going to argue anyway.
Classic wisdom says that seeking new board members is a case of looking for the 3 Ts: Time, Talent and Treasure, or the 3Ws: Work, Wisdom and Wealth. Each board member should have at least 2 of the 3, and the board mix should have all three well represented. It is true, many boards do a good job of looking for those three characteristics as they seek new directors among their friends.
However, to really have an effective board, you need a more systematic approach. Fundamentally, you need to find people who understand and care about the mission. But beyond that, they also need to understand and fulfill the major roles of a nonprofit board of directors: Direction, Policy, Oversight and Fundraising.
In terms of Direction, you need forward looking people who can think top level, in order to direct the organization to fulfilling its mission in the future. Sure, there are people who have been with the organization since it began 40 years ago, and having historical perspective is helpful. But understand that the world changes and your organization will also change. That glorious past is prologue…what was, isn’t necessarily what should be now or in the future. Your prospective directors need the ability to understand where you are now and work together to provide direction for the future.
Setting Policy is the second aspect of board responsibilities. The Executive Director is hired to be the Chief Executive Officer. It is the board that sets the policies that the ED executes. What should be the policy on security, on personnel, on finances, on client care, on community relations? Your prospective directors should include people with a wide variety of experience in all the different areas of operation, in order to set sensible policies for execution, and be in-house resources to the ED for setting guidelines.
Concurrent with setting Policy is Oversight. Once you set Policy and hire the Executive Director, the board must make sure that those policies are being executed properly. Just like commercial corporations such as Enron, Bank of America, and others of their ilk, the boards of directors of nonprofits organizations are enjoined to oversee their operations, and make sure that their policies are properly enforced. There is a reason nonprofit boards need Directors & Officers insurance – the Directors and Officers are ultimately responsible for the operations of the nonprofit. As with setting Policy, prospective directors should include people with experience in all the different areas of operation, so they can provide proper Oversight of each area.
Now we come to Fundraising. Raising funds is paramount to a nonprofit organization. In fact, when you ask some people what the role of a nonprofit board is, many will say, “Fundraising,” and stop there. No matter how much good will your directors have towards your mission, unless you have the dollars available to execute that mission, you will fold. While prospective directors may have deep pockets themselves, they cannot and should not be asked to carry the entire burden on their backs. This means that as you seek new directors, you must find those who understand their roles as chief cheerleaders and fundraisers for your mission.
Contemplating your current board of directors, consider whether each member understands each of these roles, and consciously accepts them. Whether you need to replace directors or fill vacancies, the next step is finding new directors who can fulfill these roles. Broadening your search to get the best possible talent pool means thinking strategically. How do you determine which skills you need on your board? How do you find the people who have these skills? How do you entice them to make your organization a priority? That’s fodder for another post.