Perhaps because I have spent the vast majority of my life in academic institutions or perhaps because as an adult, I started making my new year’s resolutions at Rosh Hashanah, I view September as the time of year to make new starts, new commitments, face new challenges. Thus, today, in preparation for the start of the new year, I write with a double challenge: to those reading this who are involved with nonprofits but not a board president and to board presidents everywhere.
To those who are not the board president, my challenge to you is to pass this to every board president you know. To board presidents, my challenge is to take to heart my letter to you and accept the challenge. I’ve dropped the glove; it is up to you to go from there.
Dear Nonprofit Board President:
My guess is that when you accepted (or your arm was twisted to accept) the job as board president of the nonprofit in whose mission you believe completely, you had no idea of the importance of the job or its magnitude. My guess is that you had no idea of the responsibility that was now placed on your shoulders. Though I hate to think this true, naïveté is not one of my traits, so my guess is you might be one of the majority who has yet to realize just how pivotal your role is to this nonprofit. Yes, you can make or break the nonprofit. But the good news is that you are not alone: you have every other member of your board of directors and the executive director to help you in your job.
Let’s go back to my earlier statement: you can make or break the nonprofit. An active, involved board doing its job—and not that of the executive director—can make all the difference to a nonprofit. It can help to strengthen its operations through solid financial oversight, strategic planning, fundraising, and executive director oversight. It can help to build its solid reputation by fulfilling its ambassadorial role, building a compensation structure that attracts the best and the brightest, strategically building the board so that it, too, attracts the best and the brightest. It can ensure that the organization stays focused on its missions, fulfilling its promises to its client base, donors, the general public through strategic planning and outcomes evaluation of all of its programs establishing a clear course for the future and measureable benchmarks for successful programs. And this list could go on and on, but I trust you get the point.
An inactive board, one that revisits matters again and again but never moves off the spot, or one that is active doing the wrong things—such as using board meetings simply to gather data (i.e., hear reports) rather than to look strategically at that data or to do the executive director’s job and discuss where the new sign should be put or who to hire to mow the lawn—can lead an organization to stagnation and, ultimately, to defeat. These boards give the executive director, staff and other volunteers no direction, no oversight, no support, no guidance—none of the extra that a board is designed to bring to an organization. These are the organizations that are caught in an eddy, swirling round and round, working to stay afloat but getting nowhere; these are the ones that are on the way down. A strong executive director might manage to swim out of the eddy, but with no guidance as to the best way out may end up in a rip tide—still struggling, still looking like a functioning organization, but still going no where.
As the leader of the board, you, board president, have the ability to allow a board to languish doing nothing, to work at the wrong thing or to move in the direction of becoming a stellar board. Your leadership—not your dictatorship—can help move the board, and, thus, the organization, to a higher level of performance. So, my challenge to you, board president, as another school cycle begins and students (and shouldn’t we all be lifelong students?) everywhere begin another year of learning, personal growth and improvement, is to do at least one thing that will help you and your fellow board members become a stronger, better board. What might that one thing be? Oh, my list is long, but I’ll only throw out several, all very easy suggestions.
- Hold a board training so that the board as a whole can learn from an expert what all it is a nonprofit board is supposed to do. And do NOT be stopped from doing this because folks say, “Oh, I have been on nonprofit boards for decades; I know what we are supposed to do.” No, the vast majority of them do not know. And if they are from the minority who really do know, they can still learn by sharing in the conversation their peers have in response to the information gleaned.
- Identify one thing that you have not done that a board is supposed to do, or one thing that you haven’t been doing well, and pledge to improve performance in this area. Identify measurable benchmarks for knowing whether improvement has been accomplished. Never done strategic planning? Do it. Never been good at cultivating donors, have no idea of what a major donor looks like for your organization? Create and implement a major donor campaign. Never evaluated your executive director? Working with your executive director, design a process and measurable goals and by the end of the year pat yourselves on the back because you evaluated your executive director. Board members go through the motions of reviewing financials, but really rely on the treasurer to say “yay or nay?” Do board training and educate all board members on the hows, whys and what it says of your financial reports, audits, investments, etc.
- Develop a year-long calendar of professional development activities just for the board. This could start with a board training or reading any one of the thousands of books and articles on what a board is supposed to do, followed up by monthly discussions as a portion of your board meetings. It could include each meeting a different board member responsible for designing a 15-minute presentation/discussion on something of importance to executing the job of board member. It could include presentations by senior staff on the work for which they are responsible. It could include anything that helps the board understand the mission of the organization and/or the job of board member. Be creative.
- Change your board meetings so that the board is doing real board work at its meetings rather than getting the tools (meaning the data and information contained in committee and executive director reports) it needs in order to do the real work. Board meetings were never intended to be for sponges who sit around the table absorbing information; board meetings were meant for bright, articulate, creative people to identify what the data say and strategize on how to use that data to make the organization even better at fulfilling its mission.
So, board president, the glove has been dropped and the ball is in your court, the wind is waiting for your sails, check has been called —whatever metaphor you want. Go for it. Don’t let your organization down.