There’s a pervasive myth in the nonprofit world that I like to call the “uber” board. Nonprofit leaders have all heard of it—this incredible body of selfless individuals constantly doing it all - fundraising, advising, leading, volunteering, and supporting. You’re often told in person and via field literature that this is the board you must have, anything less, and your board isn’t fully functional, it is perhaps even dysfunctional, and it reflects on you as a nonprofit leader.
Every week, at least one great nonprofit leader tells me about how their board is a failure – it isn’t the “uber” board they are told they should have. But when you unpack it, they actually have a pretty good board or even a great board.
Here’s the big secret – over my years of working with nonprofits I’ve never seen the “uber” board. I’ve seen some fantastic boards that have done incredible things and are tirelessly dedicated to their organizations and causes. But they are never the “uber” board. They never do 100% of the things an “uber” board is supposed to do. At best, they are hitting 75% of what nonprofit leaders are told they should be doing. But so much time is wasted trying to get an “uber” board and worrying about not having it.
A nonprofit leader has to spend a significant amount of time on board management. Aspiring to the “uber” board can be overwhelming, forcing the nonprofit leader to go in a thousand directions all at once. But instead of feeling like a failure because you don’t have an “uber” board, let’s focus on how you can practically activate and engage your current board. Whether you are engaging a new board for the first time or “resetting” how you support your existing board, I suggest the same starting point—get back to basics and keep it simple. Create a checklist of the things you need to do, at a minimum, to maintain and cultivate your board every year.
In reality, nonprofit CEOs and Executive Directors only need to focus on a handful of areas for board support and development that will have an outsized impact on performance.
HERE ARE THE 5 AREAS NONPROFIT LEADERS SHOULD FOCUS ON TO DEVELOP AND KEEP A STRONG BOARD
1. Plan Board Meetings
Schedule all of your board meetings for the year – this will reduce uncertainty about timing and increase attendance. You can always move them, if you have to, as you get closer, but the benefit of having them “on the record” far outweighs occasional changes. Typically, it is also more efficient to set times once rather than having a separate process for scheduling each meeting. Make sure that the prep is completed so that the board has at least one week to review an information packet. The sooner you can start board meeting prep the better. Develop checklists and procedures to make this as painless as possible.
2. Communicate Regularly
Each quarter, I recommend at least one board-wide communication outside of your board meetings. In addition, I also suggest at least one round of individualized contact each quarter, with one of those being in person or by phone at least once a year. Let’s unpack what I mean by contact. Board-wide, it’s good for members to hear from you outside of meetings. It doesn’t have to be a particular ask. It could even be a short email letting them know about an achievement the organization has had. It can be a nice reminder to the board of why they are serving and that you were thinking of them.
However, these quarterly group communications and board meetings aren’t enough to make sure your board is engaged in the organization. Personal reservations about bringing up issues at group meetings may lead to long term unresolved concerns. This is why I recommend nonprofit leaders have some individualized contact with each board member quarterly and at least one of these should be by phone or in person each year. Here are three questions you can ask during this telephone check-in:
- How am I doing?
- How do you feel the organization is doing?
- Are you satisfied with your engagement and/or how would you like to be engaged further?
Asking these questions can give you crucial information on how your board member is feeling as well as insights into ways to get them more active that they would welcome. The other three contacts can be by email, if in person or by phone isn’t feasible due to time constraints. These communications can be simple – a quick update on an issue that they’re concerned about, follow up from a meeting, or even just sharing some good news. The content can even be cut and pasted for multiple board members, if applicable. The important element is that you are communicating one-on-one with the board member, providing the opportunity for them to contact you back, and also giving them a sense that they’re important as an individual to the organization.
3. Annual Activities
Know when your annual activities are going to occur such as accepting new board members (if you accept them only once a year), conducting and receiving your audit, and reviewing your 990. These are often items that are in your bylaws and are required by state or federal law. Many nonprofit leaders might set these things aside in the interest of time, fitting them in wherever they can, but doing so runs a tremendous risk of missing some of them. These missed items can continue year after year, forming a bad habit and resulting in an organizational risk of noncompliance. In order to mitigate these risks and track your completion of these items it’s best to make sure that they’re on your list to do every year. Also, add on other things that may not be your responsibility, but will be appreciated by board volunteers who are often too busy to track all their jobs. One item in particular that tends to be forgotten - the annual review of the CEO or Executive Director’s performance. You should remind your Board Chair (or whomever is responsible) 90 days ahead of when the review is due. Similarly, you should use the same 90-day warning if you are on a contract that is expiring.
If your board has an annual give/get (and they should) you should monitor this monthly. Be clear on who has a “pass” on the give/get (such as family representatives or board members who provide crucial in-kind services). However, do be fair about it. Often when a give/get is provided in-kind there isn’t a thought as to the significance of the in-kind contribution. It is important to make sure the in-kind contribution is comparable to the give/get in order to preclude resentment among board members.
Set a date with the Board Chair as to when pledges and payments are due and follow up with the board as appropriate. Know that you will need to “staff” your chair or development committee on this effort. Typically, even the most well intentioned board leaders have troubles tracking the give/get and welcome the information and follow-up. Also, know that your give/get is never 100% either. If you are getting two-thirds of the members to realize it through cash or in-kind contributions, you are doing very well.
5. Special Projects
As a starting point try to limit your board to just one special project a year. Many people say if your board is willing to do more then let them jump in. In practice, any special project of the board needs the engagement of the executive director or CEO; therefore every new project draws even more time away from other activities. Start with one project, if you can, and remember that it doesn’t have to be complicated. Future blog entries will talk about some ways you could design more complex engagement structures, but initially, just start with involving one committee or subcommittee. A nice place to begin, if you don’t have it, is to develop an onboarding program for new members. It may seem simple, but most nonprofits don’t do this well and it leads to many downstream issues. The more a new board member understands, the more likely they are to jump in, be engaged, and stay engaged.
Whenever a special project is concluding, start to work about 60 days ahead of the project’s end date with your Board Chair on identifying the next project. This allows for another opportunity for board engagement as well as helps you to stay ahead of any issues that are top of mind for the board and organization. Also, by being proactive it is less likely that the board will come up with their own special project, thereby putting you in a reactionary stance, especially if their choice is not as good of an investment of resources as other options.
Even the "75% board" is not easy to obtain. Here's one more trick I recommend- have a checklist. Break down everything you need to do with your board into tasks that need to happen once a year, quarterly, monthly, and even weekly. Keep the checklist at hand and stick to it religiously. The result- you'll be a "75%er" in no time. Yes, you won't hit 100% of what the nonprofit world is telling you to do, but you will achieve something far better a great board, less worry, and more time to focus on the many other needs of your organization.
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