An Open Letter to Nonprofit Board Presidents

Dear Nonprofit Board President,

Your board members need to hear this.

In person… From you.

Thank you for all the time and wisdom you’ve been contributing to our organization.  We have a firm foundation now, with a great executive at the helm.

Our clients rely on us to change their lives. You’ve heard their stories; and I’ve heard how passionate you are about what we do.

Every time we’ve invested in making our dreams happen, we’ve had a great return on that investment. We invested time and energy into finding a path out of debt. We invested time and energy into finding our new executive.

And in the last year, we’ve made great plans for the future.

Now we have to make those plans a reality. When you joined the board, you made a commitment to invest in our future. It’s time to fulfill that commitment so we can start the new year knowing we can make those goals come true.

Please join me in making this organization, that I know you passionately love, your top philanthropic priority.

If your board members think the only reason for 100% participation is so other funders will give to you, then you need to rethink who’s on your board.

Donors give money.

Volunteers give time.



If you’d like to hear more about inspiring your board members – please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.


Meeting an Expectation of Delight

How’s your Board experience?

Should you delight your board?  Should you not? Is this even a question you ever contemplated?

“Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers”*  andThe Secret to Delighting Customers”*

were both published by Harvard Business Review:  the first in 2010; the second in 2013. Very different titles, but very similar premises.  A satisfied customer is one whose whole experience is satisfactory. Not just a single episode of customer service; or a single phone call experience. It is the gestalt of the experience with the company that either keeps a customer loyal, or sends her away.

The same is true for Board experience. Have you seamlessly delivered what you promised your Directors or Trustees when they first joined the board?

Did you set out Board expectations before they accepted a Board position? Are you holding them to it?

Did you promise to keep them regularly informed? Are you delivering?

Did they expect to have meaningful, generative discussions about the future of your organizations? Are you creating an atmosphere so that can happen?

Were they passionate about your cause when they joined? Are you feeding that passion?

Did you tell them you needed their wisdom and insight to plan for the future? Are you actually using that talent?

In the course of two, four, six years of board service, there are bound to be times when a trustee’s experience on a board will be less than satisfactory.  There are going to be times when finances are tight, or a capital campaign stalls, or an Executive Director leaves, or there are obnoxious people taking up board space (no, never!). But overall, have you made their Board experience worth their time and talent?

The nonprofit world focuses on the competition for dollars. But the competition for good Directors and Trustees is also fierce. Good board members ask hard questions before they join your board, and will hold you to the answers. But they’re worth their weight in gold, because with an engaged, passionate, knowledgeable board, you can aspire to higher heights.

But they’ll only stay if their Board experience keeps them coming back for more.


*Read “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers” 

**Read “The Secret to Delighting Customers”

Living in a Bubble

I’ve been living in a bubble.  I attended a seminar by an attorney who works with nonprofits, talking to other attorneys about the world of nonprofits.

Her talk was a shocking reminder of just how widespread misconceptions about board service are.  I’m becoming used to standing on a soap box and expounding with great assurance about the relationships between boards and executives. But every time I hear a professional presenting outdated ideas about board service, I am still shocked.

boy in a bubbleWhat she did was no different from so many other professionals, who know their fields very well, but are less informed about trends in governance. In this case, she launched immediately into the legal duties of care, loyalty and obedience, without setting the stage of what the whole point of a board is. She declared that board retreats could be done maybe every two years, or three if that’s when the full board has turned over, and used the word boring to describe board meetings. She referenced the never-changing agenda of “minutes, financial report, directors report, old business, new business,” and said that sometimes there just isn’t anything going on that’s important for the board to talk about.

There is so much I’ve learned from these professionals. An attorney describing the validity of term limits in ways that other attorneys can understand them; the legal ins-and-outs of confidentiality. But I cringe at the depiction of board service that they’ve conveyed. No one in their right mind would want to be on a board, if they thought that board service was as they describe.

So I have a new challenge. Apparently, I’ve been living in a bubble, where I communicate regularly with like-minded individuals. We see board service as a noble investment in our communities while being fully engaged with others who also see value in the mission, ensuring that nonprofit organizations have the resources with which to continue their work.

The challenge is, how do I—how do WE—get the word out to other professionals, so instead of undermining our work, they are also missionaries for the role of boards and board service?

And, since I’m living in a bubble, what misconceptions do I have, that I need to be disabused of, so I can reciprocate in my work, and provide an accurate picture of their field?

Any ideas?

Do you really need a board?

“Do you really need a Board or does having one just lead to more chaos…?”

A few months back, this loaded question was asked of the Nonprofit Professionals Group on LinkedIn, and a robust discussion followed.

My favorite answer, though, came from colleague John McClusky.

need-a-board“…we, the public, “entrust” the “trustees,” the predominantly volunteer body named “the “board,” to serve as our agent to ensure that the NPO actually pursues the socially beneficial purpose (mission) it claims to fulfill and acts in a fundamentally responsible way with the charitable donations and tax exemptions we grant it…”

In other words, the Board of Directors is entrusted with the responsibility to make sure that the mission is fulfilled.

For years, I have been telling boards that their job is to ensure that the mission of the organization can be fulfilled now, and in the future. It lays the groundwork for the board’s role in ensuring that the resources necessary for this fulfillment – financial, intellectual, capital, social, vision —  are available to the organization.

But I’d never really looked at the other side of the role. When we serve on boards, we are not only serving our own nonprofit organization, we are also serving society. We, the Directors and Trustees, are the eyes and ears of society, are responsible for making sure that the dollars which society entrusts to us are used wisely and to fulfill the intent which we proclaim. Our donors give us their wealth; our government is giving up tax dollars to us.

As directors and trustees, we serve our nonprofit. But we are also trustees of society, and as such, responsible for upholding our end of the bargain.

Being on a board is an awesome responsibility. Let me know if you’d like to talk about instilling this vision of a board’s role throughout your work.

If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway

If it ain’t broke, find a better way.

Usually, I hear if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  At nonprofits, it’s usually used to defend the status quo – we’ve never had term limits, our mission is still as important as ever, the materials in our literacy classes have always worked, we always read our committee reports out loud, Jimmy’s always handled our books, the 5K is our biggest fundraiser!scuplture of man sewing

The problem is, if we only fixed what’s broken, we’d never have the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the iPod, the space shuttle. Heck, if we only fixed what’s broken, we might never have invented the sewing machine! Each of these improvements weren’t fixing something that was broken, they happened because someone said there had to be a better way.

It’s the same thing with delivering our missions. Our programs have been working just fine, thank you very much. Why should we change? The answer isn’t change for the sake of change. The answer is change to do it better. To have a greater impact. To use our resources more wisely.

That’s why strong, effective nonprofits regularly evaluate their programs and measure their effectiveness. It’s not to fulfill funder requirements, although that is a nice benefit. It’s to see if we can learn from them, and find ways of having a greater impact.  Many nonprofits operate in the same mission space, because there is such a great need. It’s not competition if you can learn from each other, and discover the best practices for making a difference.

We evaluate our personnel all the time (or at least we know we should). Shouldn’t we be evaluating our programs?

Instead of saying, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, shouldn’t we be asking, it ain’t broke, but can we do it better?

One of the 55 standards of The Standards for Excellence: A Code of Ethics and Accountability for nonprofits calls for regular evaluation of programs. If you would like more information about the Standards, or ways to evaluate your programs, let me know. Let’s talk.

Are You Collecting Tokens

One of the Standards for Excellence states that

Board membership should reflect the diversity of the communities served by the organization.”

But what does diverse mean?  In the early days of affirmative action, there was a water cooler joke that to get hired you needed to be able to check off certain boxes – black, Hispanic, female, with an Asian surname. The more boxes you could check off, the more likely your resume would be read.coins

Wow, is that dated! Not to mention extremely offensive! That’s not diversity, that’s tokenism.

Instead, look at what a Board Source white paper Does Board Size Really Matter says about diversity versus inclusivity.

Increasing diversity in itself cannot be the ultimate goal. The goal must start by understanding the power of difference — searching for the perfect mixture of attributes, using what individuals have to offer, negotiating for the best solution. Being inclusive of diverse opinions and approaches is the solid foundation when building diversity.

Of course, every organization is different, so mandating a list of skills, attributes and perspectives isn’t possible. Instead, what do you need from your board in the way of passion, viewpoints, talent, skills, and contacts?

Only after you’ve figured this out, should you go out and engage prospective board members of all kinds. Board members who are collectively inclusive of a diverse constituency will be your best defense against stodgy ‘been there, done that’ mentality.

But merely checking off boxes doesn’t do it.

If you’d like more information about Standards for Excellence, let me know. Click here for more info!