Editors’ note: This article, first published in print on Sep/Oct 2006, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

The previous pages in this issue have carried responses to the article in the March-April issue of the Journal called “The Elephant in the Board Room: Round One,” In this article, I respond to readers who pointed out that in addition to focusing on board functioning, as that article did in looking at the problems of nonprofit boards, there has to be equal focus on the staff. We have written very little in the Journal about the skills needed to staff a board and in particular the relationship of the executive director to the board. A quick search on the Internet pulled up a lot of information, but as with information about boards, what’s there is mostly geared to large organizations.

At the Journal we are concerned mainly with smaller organizations—those that have fewer than three staff people (and often only one), and where the line between staff and board is permeable—that is, many of the tasks that in a larger organization might be done by staff are, by necessity, taken on by board members. In the absence of a full literature search on this topic, I want to use my experience to shed some light on the roles of staff and board.

What Are They Saying About Each Other?

For the past several years I have occasionally done workshops in which representatives from many organizations come together for two or three days, then return a few months later for the same period of time. In those settings, one can go much deeper into planning, organizational development, role playing and processing than in one-day workshops, which must be focused more on information sharing. Organizations are encouraged to send three people to these trainings, including at least one board member.

During one afternoon of the training, the participants divide up according to their roles—board members and volunteers in one corner of the room, executive directors in another, and development directors (and other staff) in another. Each group focuses on the following question; at the end, each group reports their answers to the whole.

This is the question: What do you most want the people in other roles to keep in mind about your role in the organization? In other words, if you are a board member, what do you most wish the executive director would think about when asking you to do something or responding to something you have asked?

Separating people into their roles allows them to be more candid than they may have felt in the full group, and they are able to validate and support one another’s experience. The exercise has been rated highly by everyone every time.

Interestingly, the answers are not predictable. Here is a synthesis of the most common comments from five experiences with this exercise.

Board Members

How board members respond to the question, “What do you want the executive director and development director to remember about your role?”

“I will do what I say I will do. Just give me time to do it.”

“I am very committed to this organization and want to know as much as I can about it. But I can’t always remember or even understand everything you send me to read or that I learn in a meeting, so I need to have things repeated, often several times.”

“When I bring friends to events or ask them to give money, I really want them to have a good experience. I want them to be thanked promptly and put on the newsletter list, and I don’t want to be embarrassed later. I don’t think you always take into account how much I am loaning my credibility to the organization when I ask friends and colleagues to support it.”

Executive Directors

The executive director group said:

“I am pulled in a million directions at once and I can’t always make you a priority.”

“I send materials for you to read ahead of meetings because I get tired of saying the same thing over and over, and when you ask me to repeat things I feel like you haven’t been paying attention.”

“It is more helpful if you ask me what you can do to help the organization rather than offering advice (even good solid advice).”

Development Staff

Development staff said:

“It is hard to do my work when the executive director does not actively support me at board meetings or does not let me contact board members without having to ask for permission.”

“I am often asked to do things that are tangentially related to my job but that keep my from doing my work (such as creating cash flow projections or writing and sending out press releases or board minutes). Then people are upset when money isn’t flowing in the way they imagine it should.” 

“I often lie awake at night worrying about our money situation, and I don’t want to do that anymore.” 

What Was Not Said

Now, let’s look at what was not said. Notice that the board members did not say anything like, “Between my job and my family, I don’t have very much time to put into this organization.” The executive directors did not say anything like, “You should just trust me and stop asking questions.” And the development directors did not say anything like, “I could do everything more easily myself if I weren’t answerable to the executive director or the board.”

Of course, some board members do complain that they don’t have the time to do all their board tasks, and some executive directors do complain that board members don’t trust them, and many development people do wish they had an entirely different board or no board at all. That kind of profound organizational dysfunction is beyond the scope of this article.

What this exercise has shown over and over is that there is some serious miscommunication across roles in organizations and a concomitant misreading of motives and desires.

That insight raises a new question: If we take basically reasonable people in three different roles, how can we get them to work together and understand each other?

Because this is a fundraising magazine, I will focus here on fundraising, but I hope you can apply some of what is said here to other aspects of your organization.

Six Tips for Staff

Based on the information that came out of the exercise described here, I offer six tips aimed primarily at executive directors or sole staff people to improve communications among executive directors, development directors, and board members around fundraising. I suggest you put these tips into practice this fall and see how your fall fundraising improves.

1. Be very specific in what you want board and volunteers to do.

Board time is different from staff time. A board member volunteers to do something at a board meeting on a Wednesday night. In his or her mind, the task will get done in the next two weeks. If you need it done by Thursday afternoon, then you need to say that. What I see happening repeatedly is that the staff person waits a week and when the task isn’t completed, begins to get concerned. Perhaps you send an e-mail reminder, but lacking confidence that the task will be accomplished, you do it yourself. How does the board member feel? Undermined. He or she intended to do what they said—they just didn’t intend to do it on your (unspecified) timeline.

Create a culture in your organization—among your staff, board, and volunteers—that no task description is complete without a clear deadline. The chair of the board can learn to ask, “When does that need to be done?” The minute taker can learn to say, “What day shall I note this is due?” It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) always come from you, the staff person. 

This tip is not just about deadlines—it is also about the content of the task. “Check out how Max feels about our last action and let me know” is not helpful if what you want to know is, “Is Max so mad at us for the last action that he won’t give anymore, and if so, what can I do to repair that relationship?”

2. Remember that, while you may live and breathe this work every day; your board members generally do not.

You were hired because you have experience and possibly even a degree in the issue the organization addresses and some or a lot of skill running a nonprofit. The board members come with some expertise of various kinds, but for many of them, neither the issue nor running a nonprofit is their main work. As with a foreign language, they will forget words and phrases between meetings. If a significant number of board members have trouble remembering or understanding issues, it is a sign that those issues are not being explained properly. The board is a great focus group for messaging.

A great way to get board members involved is to ask them to teach each other something. For example, let’s say you are doing a six-week major donor campaign this fall (and let’s also say if you are not doing some kind of major donor campaign this fall, you need to rethink your fall fundraising plans.) Ask someone from the board to explain the gift range chart to the rest of the board, and ask someone else to go through the packet of materials being prepared for major donors, and ask a third person to talk to the board about how to identify prospects. Prep them ahead of time and watch them work. There is nothing like teaching something to learn it.

3. Don’t talk anyone into doing anything.

It doesn’t matter that Becky would be the best leader for the fall fundraiser. She is swamped with her new job, doesn’t want to do it, and needs to be given another task. You know you could talk her into it, but what you don’t take into account is that she won’t do a good job, and then you and she will both feel bad. People should accept invitations to do certain kinds of work with enthusiasm, possibly mixed with nervousness.

If you cannot find anyone on your board to do a task, you need to go back to the drawing board and either break the task down further into smaller and more manageable tasks or plan something else. In some cases, you may need to ask for help outside of the board

New Help for an Old Task I work with an organization that has held a successful “Old Movie” Festival for five years. They rent a theater, sell tickets, and show classic movies. It is simple and easy, and they net about $10,000 over three nights. This year, no one on the board wanted to chair this event. Some of them have gone to the show every year and no longer enjoy it, two others don’t like old movies, and the remaining two board members will be out of town. The executive director heeds my advice not to talk someone into managing this event and instead notes in his next e-newsletter that the movie night needs a chair and committee. From out of blue virtual space comes just the help needed! Now the movie night is being run by people who are not on the board but who love the organization and this event. The executive director realizes that not only does he have an event committee, but on that committee are some possible board members. What if no one had wanted to do the event? Then it wouldn’t have happened! The organization would have had to raise $10,000 some other way. Far better than talking a board member into doing it, only to have her do a terrible job and have everyone wind up frustrated.

4. Do an audit of your development infrastructure.

Do thank you notes go out within 48 hours of receipt of the gift? Are they personalized? Do you create new thank you note language every two months so that a donor never gets the same thank you note twice?

Does your database work well? Is it kept up to date? Do at least three people know how to use it?

Is your website kept very current, and do stories on your site tie in with your paper newsletter? Do your newsletters go out on time? Would you reasonably expect that your donors could easily know what your organization is up to in any given quarter?

Survey your board with an e-mail asking what is good about the development function? What needs to be improved? Do they have any complaints—small or large? Do they have any requests—small or large?

Suppose you discover or finally acknowledge that your newsletter never goes out on time, or that your fall appeal became your spring appeal because you got so far behind in the fall? This is not some shortcoming of yours—this is an organizational problem when everyone (and there aren’t enough of everyone) has too much to do.

What does the board and the rest of the staff want to do about this? What are the priorities?

Set out an order in which you will take care of any problems you have. Be willing to dip into savings if you have them or to borrow money if you don’t. Poor equipment, inadequate databases or a poorly managed or non-existent web presence cost far more to put up with than to fix.

5. Meet with your development director if you have one, and review the board’s capabilities.

For each board member, ask, what are their strengths? What fundraising tasks make sense for them to do? Are there any board members whom the board chair should encourage either to step up or to step off the board?

Who are the most reliable people on your board and what should they be asked to do this fall? How can you build rest into their schedules of board work so that you create a board culture in which the reward for doing your work is time off rather than more work?

Are there other people who are not on the board whom you or the development director should be inviting to help with fundraising? How can you spread the fundraising tasks out? What do you need to do to create a culture in your organization in which having a lot of people working on fundraising is as important as getting the fundraising tasks done? (In fact, that is how enough fundraising will happen.)

6. Meet with the development director for ten to fifteen minutes every day, in addition to any regular meetings you may have.

Use these daily check-ins to help your development director stay on task, and find out during these brief meetings what may have taken her off task. Development is a job of huge responsibility and little authority, and people can easily burn out if they don’t have a lot of support. However “a lot of support” does not have to mean a lot of time—instead, frequent check-ins to trouble shoot, encourage, and keep current on progress are better than long meetings once a week.

Moving Toward Mission

As you can see, there are a number of changes executive directors can implement fairly easily that will help build the morale of the team and address the concerns that tend to surface from team members in each of their roles.

The example you set—focused attention, specific requests, spending the money required to solve problems that money can solve—will come back to you in the form of work done, people offering to help out rather than offering advice, and ultimately a feeling of everyone pulling in the same direction—the direction of mission.

Kim Klein is the author of numerous books, including the classic, “Fundraising for Social Change”.