Tuesday, September 25, 2012
“To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.” John Dewey
“Many organizations lose good people because they fail to teach them the rules.” Loretta Gutierrez Nestor
Serving on a board should be a joyous experience. Certainly, it’s hard work and you find yourself in difficult circumstances from time to time. But overall, your experience as a board member should be rewarding, fulfilling, interesting and even fun.
Even the difficult circumstances can contribute to the fulfillment. Because boards sit at the top of the organization, they hold legal authority and have ultimate accountability for the actions and results of the organization. Being at the top brings you complexity, complication and challenges. The routine, mundane, simple and easy things never find their way to your board. They get solved and treated at lower levels of the organization. The board never sees them. Issues that the board deals with are necessarily tough. That’s why they rise to the board level. Executive director performance, long-range strategy, niche and positioning, financial management, challenges to organizational reputation, program challenges—all these things are in the realm of the board, and they all can be difficult to deal with.
The fulfilling part comes in addressing these challenges well in a way that helps your organization move forward and also preserves key relationships. A well-functioning board treating key challenges is a joy that brings rewarding experiences.
How do you get the most from your board service?
1. Clearly state your expectations for board service. What do you have to contribute to this board? Which skills, experience, knowledge and abilities have you amassed during your lifetime that you wish to bring to bear for the good of this organization? Professional services, such as accounting, marketing, legal or managerial certainly go into this category. So also do your network of contacts, program-related experience, event planning and a host of other valuable attributes.
2. Discover the expectations that the organization has for you. Why has this organization approached you to serve on its board? Sometimes the organization hopes that you will bring certain skills and abilities, but never quite spells them out, leaving you to guess. Perhaps it’s better, when going through the recruiting process, to get direct information about the organizations expectations of you. If they want you to chair a committee or advance to board chair, it would be good to know that right up front.
3. Decide how much is enough. At this step, you have enough information to judge whether this board is a fit for you. You already know that you have a passion for the mission and you have decided that the style and values of the organization are a fit for you. Now you decide whether you will get to do enough of the things you want to bring to the organization (your Step 1 list). If the board wants you primarily for your accounting prowess, but you want to spend your time in fund development, you have a decision to make. No job is perfect, board service included. So you need to decide how much is enough concerning the things you want to contribute and what the organization expects from you. If you get to do 30% accounting and 70% development, that might be okay.
4. Get on the right committees. When you join the committee that deals with the issues you are most interested in, you have a good chance then of engaging in the activities you like (Step 1 list again).
5. Make a board bucket list. After you have a bit of time with your organization, you will be able to identify how you can best make your contribution. Nobody lasts on a board forever (I hope your board has and abides by term limits). Make a list of things that you want to get done during your term. It might be to establish a board evaluation process, see a long-standing land protection project come to closure, establish a new financial sustainability strategy or get the books in order. Of course, these items should also be high priorities for the board as well, so that you don’t encounter unnecessary headwinds in your pursuits. Having a short few list items that you would be really proud to accomplish will help focus and direct your time on the board.
Leelanau Conservancy board member Dick Brandt once said, “If you ever get stretched to the point of being discouraged, pick up an annual plan and see how much you have done. If that doesn’t do it, walk through the village green, which was a dump of abandoned cars and watch the weddings happening there now and take time to smell the roses.”
His colleague on the board, Craig Miller, joined in. “It’s truly fun to be part of an organization that really makes a difference.”
Help the organization make a difference by aligning your expectations with the organization’s, pursuing your bucket list, and bringing your lifetime of experience to a cause about which you are passionate.
Friday, May 4, 2012
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Ask any bunch of executive directors what they want from their boards, and most will say, “Be more engaged.”
Many times, they mean that they would like to have their individual board members become more active.
That’s because we’ve confused the role of the board versus the role of the individuals who volunteer to serve on the board.
Let’s compare and contrast the board and its members.
The board is a governing body.
The board is a body that is the legal and ultimate authority for the non-profit corporation. It is the governing body.
The members who serve on the board may also do volunteer work for the organization in functions in addition to governance. As such, they are not acting as governors, but as at-large volunteers.
The traditional governance functions of boards are:
- Ensure that the organization provides value to society by having a relevant mission and a targeted plan to pursue the mission.
- Ensure adequate resources to execute the plan.
- Ensure fiduciary responsibility.
- Evaluate progress toward the plan and the mission.
- Safeguard the organization’s reputation.
- Hire, support, supervise and replace the executive director.
- Manage the affairs of and perpetuate the board.
These are functions that the board must engage in to fulfill its legal responsibilities. They are not optional.
In this slate of functions, most executive directors would prefer that the board successfully execute Item 7. More specifically, they wish the board would run its own committees without undue staff initiative and recruit new board members with the means and interest to help the organization.
Most executive directors also wish that the board would help with fundraising. But fundraising isn’t a governance function. It’s not in the Magic 7 list above. You could read fundraising in Item 2, but it’s not there. “Ensure adequate resources to execute the plan” means that the plan is scoped appropriately to the resources of the organization. It has more to do with a realistic and balanced and budget than filling in the sources of funds side of the budget. Fundraising is not in Item 3, either. “Overseeing the appropriate uses of funds” has to do with donor policies, mission-focused uses of funds, and ensuring that fraud, waste and abuse are absent and transparently so.
Board Members as Volunteers, not Governors.
Fundraising isn’t a board function. It may be a board-member function. So let’s get to the list of functions that individual board members may engage in—or may not.
- Giving a charitable gift to the organization.
- Helping to raise funds: identifying prospective donors with the means and interest to give, building relationships with prospective donors, soliciting gifts and thanking donors for their gifts.
- Serving as ambassadors in the community. This usually means showing up at key events and saying good things about the organization to their friends. It also sometimes means the nebulous “networking,” which is an unfocused wish that board members would continually search for ways to bring resources to the organization from their circle of contacts.
- Providing advice. Often the executive director would like to have a sounding board or kitchen cabinet of experienced, knowledgeable people to ask for advice, solicit reactions to ideas and generally feel not so alone with important decisions. Sometimes the executive director finds these advisors on the board, sometimes in an advisory committee or an informal group of trusted allies.
- Serving as program volunteers. Here the board members are acting in the same role as non-board member volunteers, in direct pursuit of mission-critical activities. At these times, the board member is under direction from a staff member, not a committee chair or board president. The fact that this person is also on the board is relatively immaterial—he is doing volunteer work, not governance work.
Help Board Members Succeed.
Once the distinction is clear between the board member as part of a governing body and the board member as an at-large volunteer, helping her succeed in her respective roles becomes less confusing.
First, ask the right board member for the right kind of help, and second, ask her in a way that she can be successful in responding.
Ask board members for what they can give.
Many board members got recruited because they had a specific set of skills, abilities or other attributes to bring to the board. If that’s the case, she needs to know why the organization is pursuing her. Having to guess, or worse, not being able to apply those attributes (say, due to conflict of interest) leaves those board members adrift. If the board member knows up front why the organization wants her, she has a better chance of actually doing those functions.
If the board member has great contacts and a passion to engage them, great. If another has deep knowledge of complex land transactions and you need help figuring out all the moving parts, great again. If a third has experience designing ecological monitoring programs, that’s great, too.
But you can’t ask a board member to do a task that she can’t do—and expect to have it work out. You can go ahead and ask the ecological monitoring wizard for help with major foundations with which she has no connections or experience if you want to. Just don’t.
Social marketing techniques help figure out what to ask of whom. You should know the assets of each board member. You can then figure out two things: what is the benefit to that board member of doing what you ask, and what are the obstacles. And not as you perceive the benefits and obstacles, but as the board member does. So crawl into her skin, analyze the benefits and obstacles through her eyes, then do your best to truly amplify the benefits and lower the obstacles. You can’t just spin it—the benefits and obstacles spread has to be true. If the benefits really are quite attractive and the obstacles low, the board member perceives the task as a no-brainer, and you get your positive response.
Ask in a way to get a positive response.
To get a positive response to a request for action from a volunteer, ask her:
- To do a specific task…
- That she has the means and interest to do...
- By a time certain.
Think of an emergency situation. You say to the assembled crowd, “Somebody call 9-1-1.” Not a single person in the crowd is named “Somebody.” So all those somebodies just stand around, until, after a while, somebody decides that he will be Somebody and make the call. Time wasted in emergencies is dangerous.
Now, try it again. Catch a by-stander by the elbow and say, look him in the eye and say, “Call 9-1-1. Now.” Call made.
Savvy the difference?
Above all, remember, board members join boards because they want to succeed, and to see the organization succeed. They want to bring their special talents to make good things happen. Even the ones who got roped into joining by a friend want to use what they have to do good.
You can help them. Ask for what they can give. Ask for a specific think that they can do, by a time certain, and make sure that their body language as well as their words say yes.
“The persuasion of a friend is a strong thing.” Homer, The Iliad
Thursday, May 24, 2007
The main role of the board is to govern the organization. To see that is has a clear mission, a clear plan to make progress toward achievement of the mission, and the resources to carry out its plan. And to check progress periodically. Clear enough.
Another part of governance is to safeguard the reputation of the organization. Clear enough, too.
What happens when the staff or part of the board (or both) don’t want to be governed?
Sometimes this situation arises out of genuinely good intentions. The executive director is smart, thinks hard about the organization, and comes up with solutions to issues. When a board member brings up a question or makes a suggestion in the same set of issues, the executive director quickly explains that that’s all been figured out, or here’s why the suggestion won’t work. The board member, after a couple of tries to be helpful, concludes that she doesn’t have anything to offer, and gets pretty quiet thereafter.
Sometimes this situation arises out of incompetence or even malfeasance. On very rare occasions, the executive director desires to keep the board off his back to cover ineptitude or worse. He might react to questions with grumpiness or outright hostility, call into question the board’s motives, or otherwise make the interaction sufficiently unpleasant. Almost nobody joins a non-profit board to reap heaps of unpleasantness, and everybody wants to get along. So, many board members might just refrain from asking similar questions in the future, so as not to attract the wrath of the executive director.
In either case, the right answer is for board members not to fade away, but to pursue. It’s the board’s duty to know what’s going on, to pose hard questions and to expect clean and respectful answers. Pushback from the executive director is a signal to advance, not to slink away.
Directly challenging the executive director might not always be the best way to go. The board may move into executive session to probe the response to the question, may convene a task force or working group to delve into the issue, or might have the board president work individually with the executive director on this topic. The immediate aim is to find out why the executive director has reacted so chillingly, and to establish that there is no malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance going on. Then the next task is to see what has pushed the executive director’s button, and how to have him respond in a more useful way in the future, with this issue and others that may arise.
Because breaches of feasance are rare in non-profits, most of the time the board is dealing with an executive director who has already thought through the issue, has weighed alternatives, and has chosen a path. The executive director is also very busy, and may not feel he has the time to bring the board up to speed on an issue that is water over the dam for him. The board (or more likely board president) is in a position to help the executive director remember that the board’s duty is to govern, and questions are part of governance. And that the board does not work on this organization’s issues full time, as he does, and needs a little forgiveness if board members are not perfectly up to date on all the details.
More, the board president can help the executive director remember that most of the board members are also major donors, and ambassadors for the organization, and among its most important volunteers, and as such they deserve not only some respect but also treatment that will help them do their jobs and not want to slink away or worse, talk badly about the organization. The relationship between the executive director and board members matters, and needs continual burnishing.
Assuming that both sides, board and staff, are trying to do their best, the situation of an executive director who shuts down board engagement is still serious. Don’t settle for it. Encourage governance questions from the board and encourage respectful, patient responses from the staff. If you don’t find either, pay attention to your instincts and follow up on troubling feelings. It’s your duty.
Monday, April 23, 2007
One kind of board member can tackle and complete tasks. I won’t refer to them as “worker bees” as many people use that phrase in a condescending way. But these board members know how to get stuff done. They are organized, have good project planning and management skills, and have the willingness to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. They execute and they can be trusted to come through.
Another kind of board member has a schedule that doesn’t allow for much task work. They may travel frequently, work long hours or have an ill parent to mind. For whatever reason, they aren’t going to pitch in for implementation tasks, but they can offer good advice, help the executive director puzzle through tricky decisions or provide valuable connections to people who can help the organization. They won’t help bartend the annual casino night, but they will pick up the phone and make an introduction to a prospective donor.
A third kind of board member may neither actively engage nor lend counsel, but will write a big check. Sometimes this board member will also provide connections to prospective donors, but many times will not. They will, though, continue to support the organization through annual gifts, capital contributions and gift planning.
Many boards require that each board member attend all the board meetings and serve on at least one committee. Most boards feel disappointed when board members decide to miss a board meeting that was scheduled nine months in advance with everyone’s calendar out and everyone’s assent to that date. Maybe the absent board members are Type II (advice) or Type III (major donor) board members.
If you have major donor board members who aren’t contributing in any other way, consider whether you really need them on the board to continue gaining their contributions. If they like the organization, trust its leadership and appreciate what the group is doing with their money, why do they need to take up a space on the board? Why wouldn’t they continue to give, and perhaps even appreciate not having to feel guilty about their lack of board contribution?
Aligning what you ask board members for with what your board members are willing and able to give sounds like a no-brainer. Many times the staff and other board members get frustrated when some board members won’t show up for any events, hardly even make board meetings, flake out on committee assignments and won’t even return email messages. Before getting too irritated with these board members, perhaps they should take a step back, let out a few deep breaths, and ask themselves whether they are asking their colleagues for what they can and will give.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Walter Cronkhite, A Reporter’s Life, p 371.
Every board needs one member who is contrary, challenging and skeptical. And every board struggles with how to harmonize that board member’s behavior with the rest of the board. Ouch.
Why does the board need this grumpy board member?
There is a story reported in Newsweek about a small plane whose image appeared on the military radar screens in Moscow in the 1980s. The military technicians had a hard time identifying what this green blip on the screen really was in the air. Was it a group of birds? No, the birds would be migrating north at this time, not south as they blip on the screen traveled. Could it be hail? No, no clouds in the vicinity. Then, everyone in the group agreed that it would be birds, even though nobody believed it.
Boards are susceptible to group think. Everyone on the board wants to get along with each other (witness the low number of split votes on any issue), they often have pre-existing social relationships with each other and they generally don’t want a lot of conflict in their volunteer work.
A contrary, challenging, skeptical board member can help avoid group-think decisions. This board member asks uncomfortable questions. He raises red flags. He slows down runaway processes. He looks at things perhaps as a banker would: would he lend money on this idea? This grumpy board member, by virtue of his world view and neurological wiring, isn’t going to let anything slip by.
It may not be that this board member wishes to be combative. His brain just works a little differently from his colleagues’. Some people sort information by similarity. Picture a row of six red dots and one black one. You might see six red dots. You sort things by how they are similar. Your grumpy board member sees one black dot. He sorts things by how they are different.
In a board meeting, as the members are circling around an imminent decision, the grumpy board member is likely looking at what’s different and not lining up, not how the decision is coming together. He’s asking questions that begin with the word “but…” He’s a pain in the neck in getting decisions nailed down. He can’t help it. He’s wired that way.
And that wiring is important to having the board avoid group-think mistakes. No decisions will sail through unassaulted. They’ll all go through the gauntlet. Good.
Another form of grumpy board member behavior is advancing nasty question, “But how will it work?” This board member may sort information more toward the fine-detail end of the spectrum, away from the big-picture side.
The big picture people are already launched toward their next agenda item, having painted with a broad brush a compelling vision of how great the future will be when the decision at hand has been implemented. They are driving down the road looking at the mountains in the distance, and the wonderful puffy cumulus clouds above them. The big-picture people are gazing at the clouds but missing the potholes.
The detail-oriented board member wants to know, yes, grand vision, but also how exactly will it work and what exactly do we do tomorrow to move this decision forward? The big picture board members say, “That’s just a detail.” The detail-oriented board member replies, “Exactly.” This detail-oriented board member’s question deserves an answer. If the board can’t spec out the details, maybe it doesn’t understand the decision. It’s not looking out for the potholes. The detail-oriented board member will help the board look down from the clouds toward the road bed.
A third grumpy board member behavior is about avoiding trouble. Most board members are more motivated to take action by moving toward desirable things that the organization does not yet have, rather than by moving away from things that the organization doesn’t want. This is opposite from the make up of the general population. At least in North America, 85% of us are more moved to action by getting away from what we don’t want. Hence all the negative campaigning that political candidates engage in—they work with most of the people.
Many board members are exceptional people in that they are in the 15% of move-toward people. They are more prone to Polly Anna optimism, seeing the bright side and overemphasizing the positive facet of the issue. They can make errors of grandiosity and avoid sufficient diligence.
The move-away board member helps prevent pies-in-the-sky by bringing up potential snags, hiccups, bear-traps, tangles, snares and pitfalls. This board member’s questions also often start with the word “but.” “But where will we get the money? We don’t have the available capacity. This will get us cross-wise to the county commissioners.” And a host of other issues.
The board needs to listen, consider the issue or question sincerely and to make sure that the concern is covered.
The grumpy board member is odd in the organization, lonely on the board, and utterly indispensable. The rest of the board views with member as a pain.
The real pain is to not have someone on the board filling the role of contrarian, argumentarian, detail-monger, black-hat, stone-hearted banker.
Most of us are trying to get along on the board, smooth out relations, looking at the big picture, moving toward what would make the world a better place. We can miss the trouble spots, problems and details.
The lone grumpy board member is a vital asset to the board. Listen to him. Take him sincerely. Make better decisions (but make them) with his questions in mind. And don’t forget to tell him that he’s important, even when overruled or outvoted.
And if you don’t have one such board member, go get one.
“If you ever get stretched to the point of being discouraged, pick up an annual plan and see how much you have done. If that doesn’t do it, walk through the village green, which was a dump of abandoned cars and watch the weddings happening there now and take time to smell the roses.”
Dick Brant, member of the board, Leelanau Conservancy
Non-profit board members do not receive any pay for their time, efforts, interest and expertise. Some people might ask, “why would anyone serve on such a board? What do they get out of it?”
While the rationale for board service is unique to each individual board member, some themes do emerge. Some are in it for the networking opportunities, to rub elbows with influential people. Some are in it to learn new skills applicable to their jobs. Some are in it because they couldn’t say no to a friend who asked them to join the board.
Most agree to serve on a board because they believe in the mission of the organization and believe that they can make a positive difference to the effectiveness of the organization. They perceive the reward of making the world a better place.
I don’t know many board members who joined because they thought it would be fun. Rewarding, maybe. Fun, I don’t think so.
Should board service be fun as well as rewarding?
Adult learning and performance theory says that people learn and perform at higher levels when they are smiling, laughing, loose and relaxed. How did you learn to spell when you were a kid? With a ruler aimed at the back of your head, or embedded in a game focused on the names of African animals? Would board members perform better if they were having fun?
On the off chance that this is true, what can you do to make board service more fun?
1. Break bread together. There is something magical and deep-seated in the psyche about sharing food together. Explore starting board meetings with a half-hour tea, cocktail, ice-cream social. Or including a meal in the middle of the board meeting. Or having a social event for the board itself with no business agenda.
6. Perhaps the most important way to make board service fun is for the organization to make significant progress toward its mission. This requires having a clear sense of what constitutes progress (a vivid vision and way to monitor achievement).
“It’s truly fun to be part of an organization that really makes a difference.”
Craig Miller, member of the board of the Leelanau Conservancy