Most of the time, when I ask non-profit leaders what their boards are like, they give me pretty negative answers.  And some of their answers can be downright dreadful.  Because Richard and I normally work with executive leadership and major gift officers, admittedly we get a fairly skewed idea of what everyone thinks of their boards.
Over time, I have succumbed to this negativity in my own thinking about boards.  You may have read some of my rants about this, or you may have even read my post on why we should abolish boards.
But recently, I’ve had a revelation.  I had the opportunity to spend a day and half with a board a few weeks ago, and that experienced changed some of my thinking.  Let me tell you how this happened to me.
In one of the sessions planned by the board’s non-profit, I was asked to say a few words about the importance of boards for the success of major gifts.  In my brief talk I mentioned the three areas for which boards can be critical for success, as outlined in Part 1 of this blog series.  I saw a lot of nodding heads.
Then, we broke into roundtable discussions.  This is where my revelation happened.  One of the board members said this to me:
“You know, I really agree with you about how the board should help make connections and steward donors and bring in new folks, but I’ve brought in a number of new people to the organization and no one ever follows up.  Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing.”
Gulp!  That unleashed a chorus of other board members who basically had the same story.  Then it dawned on me.  Could it be that this really wasn’t a “do nothing” board at all?  Perhaps it was actually the ORGANIZATION that hadn’t done the proper job of cultivating and stewarding their board in a manner that was professional so as to endear its members to the organization?
YES!  Then it made me think of all the stories I’ve heard of the other “do nothing” boards from non-profit staff all over the country.  Surely I’ve missed the other side to this whole story.
Now, am I denying that there are truly “do nothing” boards?  No, of course not.  But perhaps one reason there are these types of boards out there is because the organization is doing a really bad job of helping them become successful.  That’s right.  Richard and I believe that it’s the responsibility of the organization to help a board become successful.
How do you do this?  Here are some ideas:

  1. Give the board great information Remember last Friday’s post that was focused on what you do with new board members?  Well, you can do all the same things for the current board members.  Just pretend you are starting all over again.  Put that information folder together with everything they need to know about your fundraising program and conduct a “fundraising 101” seminar at your next board retreat.
  2. Appoint a staff liaison to the board — Board members need to know who they can reach out to with questions and to get appointments.  Appointing a staff person to be that liaison is critical to creating a smooth flow of information.
  3. Ensure Follow up — As in my little story, YOU MUST FOLLOW UP on all board connections.  Of course, some of those connections may not pan out.  But, when a board member gives you the contact information of someone he or she feels is ready to be approached by your organization, you darn well better get on it.  THEN, you need to follow up with the board member to let him know the outcome and to thank him.  If you want your board members to trust you, you have to follow up and communicate.  Board members (and remember they are volunteering their time) don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their friends.  Not following up will make them feel small with their colleagues.  And that does not feel good.
  4. Treat them like peers and equals — Too many times Richard and I see staff treating board members as second class citizens, the same way they treat volunteers of all types.  This does not feel good and I don’t know why we think we can get away with treating people that way.  If you treat board members the same way you would treat a valued member of your staff, it will not only honor them, but you will get them to do far more for you.
  5. Ask the board to help you For some reason you have it in your head that board members are just going to know what you need.  Don’t ever assume that.  It’s like expecting donors to give you exactly how much you need for a project without asking.  And that is the point. ASK your board members for help.  What I heard from the board members a couple of weeks ago was that they really hadn’t been asked to help in any specific way.  They are hungry to go to work for this organization.  But they need to be asked!
  6. Train the board Just because the board may be made up of some very powerful, professional people does not mean that they know anything about fundraising.  Just as you continue to train people in your department, so you should train the board.  Remember, they want to help, but they may not know how.  Invest in this training now and you’ll reap great benefits later.

Okay, these are six solid ideas in how to make your board successful.  The more time, resources and energy you can give to your board, the greater the long-term benefits for both them and your organization.
Remember, your job is to help the board win!  In turn, so will your organization.
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