Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2014, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Kim recently met a new and wonderful client that does great advocacy work on public education. The organization was interested in having her do a training for their entire board on how to ask for money in person. She met with the executive director, the chair of the fundraising committee and two other long time board members. She asked them how much fundraising the board members did now.
The chair of the fundraising committee, Laura, sighed. “Some of us heard you last year at a conference, and you suggested starting with something that is not scary and everyone can easily do. So we started with thank you calls. Every board member was to make five thank-you calls in July. We gave them a script, the donor information and a timeline. But we were the only ones who made the calls.”
Kim asked, “So what happened?”
“I called everyone to remind them, and they just said they hadn’t gotten to it,” replied Laura.
“And what is the consequence for that behavior?” asked Kim.
There was a moment of stunned silence. “Consequence?” the ED finally squeaked. “It is not as if you can fire them.”
“Exactly,” chimed in another board member. “They are donating their time. But we are hoping that your training will inspire them to actually do some asking.” She smiled brightly.
At this year’s Money for Our Movements conference, the debate was whether boards have outlived their usefulness or whether they are still useful and important (see sidebar on next page for the full resolution).
The debaters were a talented group of people who, among all of them, have held all the roles that most nonprofit organizations have available: three are or were executive directors, all are or have been board members, two have been development directors, and two are now consultants. The debate was dynamic and thought-provoking.
We were very pleased that both sides focused on a key point of boards, one which is often disregarded or forgotten: boards allow people most affected by or invested in an issue to play a leadership role in addressing that issue and, thus, create better solutions to pressing social issues than would otherwise be the case. Grassroots fundraising consultants, with us among them, have placed a great deal of emphasis on the board’s role in fundraising. What we were not always clear about is that fundraising is not the chief priority of the board, and that, while all board members need to participate in fundraising, they should not be chosen simply for their own access to money or ability to raise money. In retrospect, we see how we inadvertently contributed to the mythology that organizations must find rich people who care about their issues, who will give lots of money and raise even more money from their rich friends. When this does not happen, the staff throw their hands up in despair and resign themselves to a board that doesn’t work.
- The voluntary Board of Directors as the governance structure for nonprofit organizations was codified in the 1950s and 60s to govern the small number of existing nonprofits, 50,000 to 250,000, which were mostly run by volunteers;
- Today the nonprofit sector encompasses 1.7 million non-profits and represents a much larger sector (10% of the workforce, 4% of the GDP and a $1.5 trillion industry);
- At the time the law was codified, many families could live on one income, freeing up a second family member to volunteer;
- Today most families need at least two incomes to survive, and many other families are headed by one person;
- The primary complaint of both board and staff about their organizations is the failure of board members to exercise fiduciary oversight and leverage adequate resources to address community needs;
- Both board members and staff rarely find the board/staff relationship worthwhile;
- Common sense dictates that the idea that busy and uncompensated volunteers should oversee the increasingly complex workings of professionally staffed nonprofits, and that the volunteers should carry the responsibility of hiring (or firing) leaders of these organizations is fraught with problems;
- The health and well being of social justice nonprofits is not served by the current structure and our ability to build movements for change is often hindered by the brakes put to our work by well-meaning but overcommitted and un-trained board members;
- The existing structure is untenable and is hindering our ability to create radical, long lasting change;
Therefore be it resolved that:
- The current structure of the Board of Directors be recognized as a historic relic and be dissolved;
- Fiduciary responsibilities for nonprofits be carried out by paid organizational leadership.
In this article, we will build on our belief that a board of directors should be a tool of democracy. Far from needing to be assigned to the dustbin of history, the board actually needs to be reclaimed as an essential feature of a healthy organization. Starting with this premise, our focus would be to build a robust and enthusiastic team of people who feel accountable to each other, are strong partners with staff, and want to do their best work (including fundraising).
This is all well and good, you may be saying as you read this, but how do you really turn your board into this dynamic team? Below are five ideas we think could be useful in trying to address many common board challenges.
The distinction between a working board, policy board, fundraising board, and any other kind of board is false. All boards should be doing work that includes governance and oversight, as well as more hands-on activities such as fundraising and promoting the organization to their own networks. Don’t try to solve the problems you are having with the board by calling it something that implies that it is a body with little or no responsibility to be active and engaged.
In addition, the board is an organized body of individuals who must work together as a team. Once you figure out what, or who, is missing, you then need to figure out whether the board candidates you are considering are team players. Here are some questions to ask them and some answers to watch out for:
Question: What other groups are you a part of? (Not just organizations, but book groups, basketball teams, bridge clubs, etc.). What do you like about being on a team, and what frustrates you the most?
Answer: Someone who says, “I can’t stand going over and over things,” is probably not a team player, whereas someone who says, “I like knowing how I am a part of a bigger effort,” probably is. Someone who says, “My pet peeve is people who always arrive late,” is likely more of a team player than someone who says, “I don’t want to spend a lot of time in meetings.”
“THERE SHOULD ALWAYS BE A WAITING LIST OF PEOPLE WHO WANT TO GET ON THE BOARD BECAUSE IT IS KNOWN TO BE A REWARDING AND ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE.”
Question: What would you do if you had agreed to take on a task and then couldn’t get it done?
Answer: Someone who says, “I’d call the chair or the staff and tell them right away,” is going to be a better board member than someone who says, “I always do what I say” (which can’t be true).
Question: What would you do if someone on your committee didn’t complete a task he or she had taken on?
Answer: Someone who says, “I’d talk to them about it and figure out how to get it done,” would probably be a better board member than someone who says, “I’d just do it myself ” (who might be a great volunteer).
Learn to listen for clues about whether people want to be and enjoy being on a team. If they do, chances are they are also people who do what they say, are willing help others, know the importance of delegating and letting other team members do their work, and take pride in the accomplishments of the whole group.
By seeing your board as a team, you can imagine how, metaphorically, you are going to get them ready to go out on the field. The metaphor that is usually in place, on the other hand, is that the board is in the bleachers—they are the audience for the executive director or sometimes for each other. They are a great cheering squad. But in a team, the players know their places and their relationships to the other players. They know if they don’t do a good job, the entire team may lose the game. They practice (when is the last time your board had a practice session built into the board meeting?), and they seek to improve their skills. They value working together.
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There should always be a waiting list of people who want to get on the board because it is known to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience. This point often raises a lot of eyebrows. Are we trying to say that board meetings shouldn’t be serious? That they are some kind of entertainment? Not at all. But being on the board should bring joy to board members’ lives. After a good board meeting, members should be repeating things they heard to their friends and be eager to invite friends, neighbors and family to organizational events and gatherings. They should be forwarding the newsletter or posting it on Facebook, wanting their communities to learn about, and get excited about, the organization’s work. In creating an agenda for a fun board
meeting, identify the big questions facing the organization and the issue(s) you work on. How would your work benefit from a robust discussion and debate about them? Both board and staff members should leave feeling like their knowledge about the issue deepened during the board meeting. Ask each board member: What did you hear about our issue since the last time we got together? How many people did you talk to about our work? Every board member will be asked to speak at least once, even if that means getting the board into smaller groups.
Take care of the board—if the meetings are right after work, provide substantial, healthy snacks or even dinner for the members. Make sure board members don’t have to pay for dinner that might be served at the meeting. Otherwise, those who come to meetings pay more than those who don’t.
Make everyone feel welcome. Consider starting with a simple question as an icebreaker: What did you want to be when you were a child? Share the story behind or the meaning of your first name. What is one thing on your bucket list?
Every organization can make their meetings more interesting, which can often mean just making them more interactive. If you want your board members to engage donors and engage their friends in your work, you need to give them ideas of how that works by engaging them during the meetings.
“WE HAVE ALSO SEEN BOARDS WHERE THE BOARD MEMBERS OPERATED AS IF THEY WERE ON A TV LAW DRAMA IN THE PART OF THE PROSECUTOR, AND THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR WAS A HOSTILE WITNESS.”
Board members bring valuable perspectives to the organization’s work, helping all of us understand the issues more deeply, in part because a good number of them should be engaged with and affected by the issues in their daily lives. Social service agencies, in particular, will often push back on this: “We serve people who are homeless, suffer from mental illness or are survivors of child abuse. They can’t be on the board.” If you expand your vision of who your constituency is, you will have no shortage of suitable candidates. Children who were abused become adults. Some of them would make great board members. People with mental health challenges can, and do, serve on boards, but so can their family members, neighbors and therapists. Our lives are interconnected, and our boards should reflect that.
We should think it is as odd for a social service agency to not have constituents on the board as it would be for a humane society board to mostly be comprised of people who don’t have rescued animals as pets. Implementing this assumption takes time and thought, particularly if the composition of the board has moved away from the constituency, or if the “constituency” is not that obvious (i.e., Who are the constituents of a think tank? Of a public health advocacy group?). We will explore this topic in more depth in a future article.
Asking questions during a board meeting (and at other times) should be encouraged, rather than seen as being unreasonably critical or disloyal.
Questions are part and parcel of being a team player. However, too often the team spirit is dampened because the executive director sees the board as inherently adversarial. Legitimate questions about spending, program direction and staffing are received by the executive director as a challenge to their authority and judgment. We have also seen boards where the board members operated as if they were on a TV law drama in the part of the prosecutor, and the executive director was a hostile witness. If that is the atmosphere of your board meetings, consider getting an outside facilitator who can help everyone learn to both ask questions in a supportive way and receive questions as gifts rather than arrows. This process will build greater trust between board and staff.
Kim worked with the executive director of a nationally renowned theater who said that he and the board chair made an agreement that they were going to make the board meetings events that people looked forward to and remembered afterwards. Board members came from several states for a two-day meeting three times a year. When Kim started working with them, they could barely get a quorum. Staff never wanted to come to the meetings, and the goal was always to end the meetings early.
To begin to address the problem, they sent out an evaluation after every meeting, which asked: What did you learn? What would have made the meeting better? What did you hear that you would want to share with someone else? They reported the results of the evaluations to the board right after they were compiled, and the next meeting reflected what they had learned. Once board members realized this was actually a serious undertaking, they began to suggest big changes in the meetings. For example, a board member asked if the casting director could give a lecture on how he went about finding the right actors. The casting director then took it a step further and asked board members to read scripts for various parts and told them what kind of play or what kind of part he would imagine them playing well. Not every member read a script, but the engagement was palpable. So at least once a year as part of the meeting, the casting director, the stage manager, the costume manager or someone else involved in the actual production comes to the board meeting and helps the board get a deeper understanding of what they do. As much as possible, they do it by involving the board in the process.
Accountability arises naturally from the desire to be the best member of the team you can be. People who prefer to work alone can be very effective volunteers, but they are not good board members. And, obviously, people who consistently don’t step up and work may be very nice, but are not suited to being on a board.
“MOST OF US COULD BENEFIT FROM LEARNING HEALTHIER WAYS OF DEALING WITH DIFFERENCES AND EVEN OUTRIGHT CONFLICT.”
The story we started with is all about accountability. But where does accountability begin?
In the story that opens the article, board members were given a task. The task seems reasonable, so apparently they didn’t object to it. But clearly they didn’t actually want to do it. They were not at all involved in the decision to take on the task, so they didn’t end up doing it. Furthermore, they knew nothing would happen to them for not doing it.
On this board, and so many like it, it is clear you can be on the board without doing anything. Consequently, those board members who do their work may feel beleaguered, let down, martyred, resentful, resigned, tired or some combination of all of these. Soon the board is tacitly divided into camps: those who do what they say, those who sometimes do what they say, those who never do what they say, and those who never say they will do anything. The staff, particularly the executive director, works with those members who are reliable, ignores the rest, and takes on more and more work themself, particularly fundraising.
Now let’s retell the story that opens the article from the point of view of a team.
All board members in this organization make their own gift. The members of the fundraising committee called them individually and thanked them. At this meeting, the chair announced that the organization has 100 percent giving from the board and gave the total amount. A few moments were given over to clapping. Several people mentioned the thank you calls.
The chair then explained to the board members that she and the other members of the committee wanted to help everyone fulfill their other fundraising commitment to help raise money from their networks. She shared her own story of being nervous about asking and how she was moving past that by asking people she knew cared about the cause. She led a discussion of ways people had been involved in fundraising before and what they thought about it. Most had little experience, but some funny stories emerged of selling Girl Scout cookies or chocolate. Several people admitted that they usually just bought everything they were supposed to sell. The chair asked whether people might be interested in calling donors to thank them. She described the evidence that thank you calls, even if just a message on voicemail, leads to increased giving. After a short discussion, the chair went around the room to see which board members would be willing to take this on. All agreed to do this task.
The day after the deadline for making the thank you calls, the board chair called the fundraising committee chair to thank her for the leadership she had shown on this. “You set such a good example, and sharing your own story about being nervous really helped me.” All but two people completed the task.
Ownership, encouragement, and breaking the task down into smaller pieces all meant that the task was accomplished.
But what about the two board members who did not complete their calls and at the next board meeting, acted like nothing had happened? Accountability is relatively easy when we see it positively. This means letting people know they did a good job, praising them in front of their peers, and thanking them privately. We usually don’t do this enough and would benefit greatly from making it part of board practice. Positive accountability might solve 80 percent of the problems you’ve been having.
As for the remaining 20 percent: people who simply don’t do what they say they will do or don’t offer to do anything remain a problem. When we have to talk to someone about not doing what they say, we move to the root of the problem of accountability: our deep reluctance to say hard things to each other. If we were to name the training we would want all boards (and staff) to have, it would be, “From Conflict Avoidance to Conflict Resolution.” Most of us could benefit from learning healthier ways of dealing with differences and even outright conflict. At a practical level, this training would empower board members to sanction each other and even ask the most problematic people to leave. Contrary to popular opinion, you can “fire” board members.
At the deeper level of our understanding of boards as a tool for democracy and a way to give community members a voice, conflict resolution skills help people use their voice. Many of us have been silenced in various ways our whole lives, and we don’t speak up in a group. Some of us have only gotten our way by bullying, shouting and intimidating others. Learning how to be honest in a kind way—to be clear in a way that is supportive and encouraging—is crucial. Learning how to really listen to each other, not assuming you know what someone is going to say before they even open their mouth, is just as important. Learning to help one another work hard and effectively for our team is an adventure in itself, which can sometimes even lead to the realization that being on this team might not be right for us. Learning conflict resolution skills increases the likelihood that board meetings will be meaningful, helps guarantee that board members are account-able, and allows people to take ownership of tasks.
We hope that many of us bring the debate resolution from the Money for Our Movements conference back into our own board-rooms. It should inspire conversations that lead to a lot of productive changes. The tips in this article will hopefully help the people who come down solidly on the “con” side of the resolution realize that we can have the boards we want and need. Like fundraising, it takes work to succeed. But, also like fundraising, it is worth it. ■