When nonprofit executive directors say they want their boards to be more "engaged," they often really mean they want the board to have a lively discussion followed by a vote to agree with the executive director. If you're a CEO and want a weak, compliant board, try these tips:
1. Give board members too much information. One board member we know just received a board packet 1,400 pages long: almost three reams of paper! Bonus: you can complain that they never read the packet and if at any time someone claims they weren't informed of something, you can say in a very tired voice, "It was in the board materials last year."
2. Give board members very nice presents and perks. One new CEO was annoyed by the board's rambunctiousness . . .
"To err is human," and as we all ruefully know, nonprofit board members and executive directors are typically human. Here are some of the biggest mistakes we make:
1. Falling in love with the executive director and letting love diminish critical thinking: Even if you have the world's greatest CEO, that CEO will benefit from your bringing your scrutiny and thinking to the organization's work and to his or her performance. Being in love is great, but bring up the issue of getting the dishes done.
"Conflict of loyalty" is a useful concept and term that gives us another dimension to work with than simply conflict of interest:
In our legitimate desire to avoid conflicts of interest in nonprofits, we typically make two oddly opposite mistakes:
We narrow "conflict of interest" to a strict legal definition and focus only on matters that involve personal financial gain, and
At the same time we are too quick to label any kind of relationship at all as a conflict of interest.
But often, the "conflicts of interest" in nonprofits do not involve personal financial gain. Consider the board member whose commitment to rights for people with disabilities leads her to serve on the boards of two such organizations. At Board A she hears about a new grant opportunity that is opening up at a local foundation. Should she tell Board B about it, or is she obligated not to mention it?
Or what about the deputy director of a nonprofit theater who sits on the board of a battered women's shelter: two very different fields. He's just met someone he thinks would be a great board member for either organization. Should he suggest this person to both, or to which one?
Dear Blue Avocado: I'm the chair of a nonprofit board and I have a problem. We recently voted to support a local measure that would change some zoning regulations in our county. This board member -- I'll call him "Joe" -- was outvoted (he was the only one to vote against it). The staff wrote up our position and put it on our website. Now Joe won't stop emailing the staff and telling them to change a sentence or add something or even to take it down. The staff is spending hours talking with him on the phone about it. What do I do?
Dear Board Chair:
You already know that you have to stop his behavior. The question is how.
You need to send two clear messages: one to Joe and one to the staff:
When a new executive is hired, the board usually breathes a huge sigh of relief. They have likely been working extra hard for weeks or months interviewing candidates or taking on additional tasks, such as managing a fundraising event or overseeing the audit. If you're on a board, before you turn over the reins to a new leader, consider these fast ideas to help get the executive get started on a path to success:
Hang in there just a bit longer. It's understandable that board members want to relax once the new executive director is in place, but stay in there at continued intensity for a while longer, and make sure the executive has the support she needs to get off to a great start. A new executive may be reluctant to ask board members to do something, or may be new to the community or field as well. Tip: Assign a committee or an officer to take on the job of monitoring the needs of the new ED.
You know the board matrix: it has a list of skills and competencies that are "supposed" to be on the board, such as legal, marketing, HR, fundraising, finance. And typically there are also demographic qualities, such as gender, race, age. The board matrix then shows what boxes you presumably need to fill.
What's wrong here is that these board composition matrices focus our attention on what people are, rather than on what the organization needs board members to do.
Let's look at the three failures of board matrix approaches:
1. The skills trap: By identifying skills such as legal or finance, we often end up with the wrong kind of legal or financial professional . . .
Our thanks to Meg Evans, who shared her job description as Coordinator of Board Relations at the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation in Portland, Oregon. This version is edited from the original.
COORDINATOR OF BOARD RELATIONS
Full time, non-exempt
To provide administrative support to the Board of Directors and associated committees. Function as the primary contact person for the Board and associated committees (Executive, Nominating, Finance).
Functions & Duties:
90% time: Administrative support and primary contact for the Board of Directors and associated committees as follows:
Organize and engineer meetings and events and contract with and supervise subcontractors
Create meeting(s) timeline, prepare and distribute meeting notification, correspondence, and agenda materials
Attend board and committee meetings and record minutes
Create and maintain board booklets
Establish working relationship with the Board of Directors President and committee chairs in verbal, written, and electronic correspondence
Maintain, as needed, both mailing & public relations lists of board and committees, including website updates
Monitor board budget
Create mailings, newsletters, and other materials for the board committee members
Mail, track, and follow up on the annual conflict of interest disclosure and create report for Executive Committee review . . .
Dear Blue Avocado: We have 18 board members, but we are wondering if we should try to keep such a large board.
At our upcoming board and senior staff retreat we will be discussing what size our board should be to be most effective. Help!!
By the way, we share credit with you for our great success in recruiting six new dynamic board members using your "Blue Ribbon Committee" method outlined at a session you led at a California Wellness conference a couple of years ago. Thank you! Signed, Nina Dooley, LINC Housing, Long Beach, California
Dear Nina and LINC Housing: You've hit upon the single most common question asked of experts on nonprofit boards: What's the right number of people to have on the board?
We're tempted to answer: "17. That's the average board size in the United States so it must be right."
Instead of focusing only on how board members can raise individual donations (or not!), think more broadly (and effectively) about how board members can support the key aspects of your organization's business/revenue strategy:
In the quest for funds, there is no shortage of advice given to nonprofits. Start a social enterprise! Get corporate donations! Raffle a house! Perhaps the most frequent and consistent advice: focus the board on getting major gifts; in fact, recruit a strong fundraising board that can get major gifts.
But pursuing a new funding stream for which you may not have the right people and competencies already is often not the best place to start. Instead, we recommend that you see how you can boost and leverage the funding streams and people you already have in place.
Let’s imagine a community center with five areas of . . .