Over the past several weeks I’ve heard a number of stories that leave my head shaking about whether non-profit boards are really worth the hassle.
Yeah, I know, legally every non-profit has to have a board in order to get 501c3 status.  I get that, but unless we start doing a better job recruiting, interviewing and training board members to do what board members SHOULD be doing, I’d like to do away with them.
Recently, I was speaking with an Executive Director of a major non-profit.  He was telling me about the phenomenal results they were getting in new donor acquisition in the mail.  I mean, unbelievable numbers – really rare compared to the rest of the non-profit sector these days.  After looking at the numbers and the universe he could mail, I asked him why he wasn’t tripling his budget.  “Well,” he said, “my board doesn’t like to lose money on acquisition.”
My jaw dropped.  The board didn’t understand the concept of “investing” in the program for long-term sustainability.  And, this board has a number of prominent business people who should know better.
Richard and I find this all the time.  Once business leaders get on a non-profit board, they somehow lose their minds and can’t equate the non-profit with how they actually “invest” in their own business.  It’s so frustrating.
Then, I ran into another situation where the board was asked by the CEO of a non-profit to help out with their major gift fundraising.  Of the 17 board members, only one actually said he would help by reaching out with his contacts.  One.  The others just didn’t feel comfortable either asking their friends and colleagues to help or didn’t think it was “appropriate.”  Yeah, they used THAT word.
I’ve heard from so many frustrated non-profit leaders who are trying to move their organizations forward, trying to be innovative and create a larger reach with their mission, but are stymied by either inactive or “do nothing” board members who really don’t understand their role in the organization.
Many non-profit leaders lament to us that they feel their boards are just considered social clubs by some business and civic leaders. They wonder whether they really have a heart for the mission or are just hoping to further their own careers.
Now, I know this is all a pretty cynical look at non-profit boards, and there are some productive and engaging boards out there, but throughout my 25+ year career in working with non-profits, the “they just don’t get it” type of board is wildly rampant in our industry.
Your organization will never truly fulfill its vision and mission without a dynamic board.
So, as non-profit leaders, since we can’t abolish our boards, what can we do to help make them work for us and not against us?  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Get the right chairperson—The board will definitely be driven by its leadership.  The right chairperson is someone who understands the role of governance and takes it seriously.  He or she also “gets” that non-profits are in the business of addressing the need and taking care of and investing in their donors.  The chairperson is not a “yes” person for the executive director, but does understand growth and is in synch with the ED on the vision for the organization.  The chairperson is one of the non-profit’s greatest cheerleaders by inspiring the rest of the board to give and get the word out about the mission.
  2. Create a robust nomination process—You don’t want to just let anyone on the board.  There needs to be an extensive interview process for each candidate for the board.  Do they understand the vision of the organization?  Do they “get” that they have to fundraise for the organization?  Are they willing to be public advocates of your work?  Will they bring in their sphere of influence to support the organization?  These are important questions for the prospective board member to answer right up front.  Too many boards are made up of folks who have been wrestled into it or asked “as a favor” for their buddy.  You don’t need those board members, I don’t care who they are. You want people who are passionate about your mission and will be ambassadors with their time and money.
  3. Create a board member training program—Okay, now that you have the right person or people on the bus, you need to have an ongoing training program on what makes effective board members.  There are a ton of good people out there, like Gail Perry and Mark A. Pitman, who are really good at helping you lead board members through a good retreat.  Use them or someone local who has experience in training boards.  This is critical.
  4. Feed Your Board Members—No, I don’t mean with food (though you can do that too), but with information on marketing and fundraising, overhead and ratios.  Get the right information into their hands up front so they understand in their head and heart why investing in the future is a good thing.
  5. Celebrate the Board—When you see members of the board going above and beyond, make sure you single them out and praise them in front of their peers.  This does two things: it makes the board member feel good and challenges the others to step up their game.
  6. Move non-performers off—Every non-profit board I know of has board members who are on the roster but not actively helping your organization, or worse, bringing down the rest of the board with a bad attitude or backward thinking about their role on the board.  Sponsor these folks out.  Now. There are so many boards with “dead weight” and they are languishing.  No one has the guts to tell these folks they need to leave.

These six things will help you get started on creating a dynamic board that works FOR you and not against what you are trying to accomplish.
And, let’s remember leaders, they are also there to hold YOU accountable.  That’s an important function and one that, if you have the RIGHT board members, you will welcome, because we all need accountability.
A growing, dynamic, effective organization has the same qualities in a board.  You can’t have one without the other.