By: Denise Dahl, MPA
Founder & Principal, Epiphany Planning & Development
Nonprofit Leadership & Strategy
One of the most common questions I receive is “How do I get my board to do more?” The answer is easy, but the implementation can be a bit more challenging as board members each come with their own motivation regarding serving. Maybe they are serving as the cause is dear to them. Maybe they are serving because they feel a type of ownership (founder’s syndrome). Maybe they are serving to build their resume. Reasons to serve on a board are as varied as the personalities of those that serve. So where do you start? Start by authentically engaging the board. Don’t worry, it isn’t as exhausting as it sounds.
So here’s the big question: Does your board even know what is expected of them? Surprisingly, a vast number of board members aren’t clear on this. And how can you get them to do more if they don’t even know what they are supposed to be doing in the first place? Not knowing can lead to a range of behavior from apathy to anarchy, which no executive director enjoys and/or benefits from.
So where do you start? Like Maria sang in The Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” When welcoming a new board member, have a welcome packet and a bit of time to acclimate them so they understand both the culture and expectations of the organization. This “welcome to the board” packet doesn’t have to be exhaustive, and preferably it is not, as that will decrease the likelihood that it will be read by anyone.
The board packet content will vary based on whether or not you do a one-on-one session with them. Rule of thumb: repetition for emphasis won’t do any harm. Having said that, I harken back to the paragraph above as a reminder that it shouldn’t be overwhelming. Here are seven items – the magnificent seven – that will start you (whether “you” are the director or the board member) down the right path to a happy and productive stay.
- Organization’s Mission Statement. You can walk into a ton of nonprofit board meetings on any given day and ask board members to share the organization’s mission statement. If you are lucky you may get a generalization of it. In a lot of cases you’ll get blank stares. Not knowing what a board’s mission is leaves everyone open to pursuing projects and/or funding that aren’t part of the organization’s core values and strategies. That in turn can lead to unnecessary chaos.
- Conflict of Interest Statement. A Conflict of Interest statement protects the board, the staff, and the organization from uncomfortable slip-ups and/or egregious exploitation. It also lets the board know that the organization takes it and the board’s responsibilities seriously. As an added bonus, it shows potential funders and donors that you are ethical and responsible.
- History of the Organization. I’m not talking a comprehensive doctrine or dissertation, but rather a brief summary or even better, a timeline that can be filled in during a chat. The history of the organization can help define the vision and path for the board member. Added bonus: the board member will be able to utilize this knowledge while fundraising. If you’re a director and just laughed because your board isn’t fundraising, that is a whole separate article.
- A List of Acronyms. A list of acronyms often gets overlooked when a new member joins a board and can lead to confusion, or even disengagement, because most folks do not want to admit they may be the only one in the room that doesn’t know something. We’ve all had that moment and know it’s not a great feeling to start something new and immediately feel lost.
- Organization’s Budget. Why does this help a board member? It helps him/her understand the resources and availability of funds. It shows what the board can do based on what the organization can leverage financially. Added bonus: it guards against grand ideas with no funding, and illustrates why fundraising participation is always welcome.
- Strategic and/or Annual Plan. A strategic and/or annual plan rounds out a strong knowledge base and keeps a new board member on track and in the game. Added bonus: it protects the director and empowers her/him to know what success looks like, and ensures those reviewing her/him understand it too.
- Board Buddy. New members should be assigned an existing board member to help shepherd them along the way. This not only engages the new member but the existing member, as well. Peer-to-peer contact helps bond the board. Added bonus: it takes all the pressure off the director who already has a full plate.
While the “magnificent seven” listed here is a great starting point, by no means is it all-encompassing or a one-and-done type of deal. It provides a solid base to welcome someone onto the team and yields the confidence to participate and contribute. With a strong base, a board member can begin to root and subsequently branch out.
Overall, if you lay the foundation of the magnificent seven, you’ve begun building a relationship with and within the board that will empower them in knowing what role they have. Once the foundation is down, then it is time to look at additional engagement in varying areas ranging from supporting the director to – everyone’s favorite – fundraising.
Stephen Covey aptly said, “Leadership is a choice, not a position.” In helping your board members get comfortable to engage and support, you empower them to contribute in a manner that leads the organization.
Denise Dahl MPA is the Founder & Principal, Epiphany Planning & Development with a mission of helping humanity succeed. She has taught in higher education as well as, worked with a wide range of organizations ranging from small nonprofits to big Fortune 100 companies empowering them through planning and leadership support.