Eyes Wide Open On-Boarding

Posted by Joan Ulmer on April 5th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I often have to work with boards or organizations that are in perilous positions.  In one case, the long-serving executive director left unexpectedly and the organization was on shaky ground financially.  Add to this that with the departure of the ED, board members were only now admitting to the fact that she hadn’t really been “leaning in” for a number of years, having opted to focus on what she wanted to do, rather than all that needed to be done. 

Eyes wide open and shut

I had been invited to help them understand what the relationship between a board and an executive director should look like so they would be prepared when a new ED was hired and to help them begin to think strategically about what they needed in that next ED. 

When I started to talk about that “best practices relationship,” which was clearly absent with the previous ED, a board member immediately interrupted.  Her message was important:  let’s cut to the chase of what we need because we are all important, busy people.  She spent a good ten minutes telling my just how important and busy they all were.  I restrained myself from responding that I didn’t care how important they are, that they aren’t important to this organization if they can’t spend the time doing the job of a nonprofit board member, and doing it well and right.   

During a discussion about boards in an Executive Director Peer Learning Circles I facilitate, I shared this example and received an immediate firestorm of responses.  Of all, two resonated most with the group.  First, they agreed that it is more than time to stop using “I’m a busy person” as an excuse to not do the job you agreed to do, regardless of whether you are receiving a financial or social return from the job. 

It was agreed that the vast majority of people with whom we come into contact on an average day would say that they are busy people.  Rightly or wrongly, this does seem to be the norm these days, and most of us just accept it as our reality without calling it to others’ attention.  Yet, those folks who love to throw out the busy people line do so in an effort to self-aggrandize, while simultaneously being incredibly pejorative, an effort that fails to reach its mark on both counts.  Rather than trying to hide behind the statement and using it as an excuse for cutting corners or dropping balls or not stepping up, we should use it as a guide for when we to say, “Yes, I can do that, and do it well,” or “No, I don’t have room on my plate for that.”

While executive directors group objected to this excuse from anyone, it is no surprise that this line coming from board members especially rankles.  Rightfully so.  When a governance committee leads a board and the ED through a great on-boarding process that identifies some great potential new board candidates, everyone is enthused.  They are excited for the new blood, new energy, new perspective, new ideas, and so on.

Fortunately, we have some good evidence on how this process should work, and even a few ideas on how we might control some of the “art” elements that are always present whenever you are talking about human beings. 

But what we cannot control is candidates’ honesty with themselves.  A good on-boarding process should talk about the time commitment needed of a board member—both in terms of an average number of hours of work expected each month and the types and demands of the work of a nonprofit board member.   It should expose candidates to the calendar of board and committee meetings and other events at which board members are expected to participate so that candidates can look at the workload and see how it would or wouldn’t fit in with the current and future demands of their lives.  It should share with candidates any possible “big bumps” that may be looming out there that could require that emergency meeting(s), additional committee work, extra meetings with donors.  All of this is to make clear the demands of the job so that candidates understand the responsibility that they are considering accepting.  And they can determine before they say yes whether their busy lives have the additional room to take on this very important job.

The failure to do that assessment leads this group of executive directors to their second major complaint stemming from my story:  the failure of board members to show up in body and/or in presence.  I had shared with the group of EDs that there were almost as many board members missing as were in the room; two had to leave an hour before the meeting was to end, while another didn’t arrive until we were halfway through the meeting and we had to backtrack to bring her up to speed; and several spent more time on their phones than being present in the conversation. 

Anyone who goes to nonprofit board meetings knows this is not an uncommon experience, which does not validate its occurrence.  While there are a number of aspects of a nonprofit board member’s job that can and do happen away from the board table, there is much that can only happen there.  Board members must be present in body (or virtually, from time to time, if necessary) and soul.  If that isn’t going to happen, then candidates should never convert to board member.

As noted earlier, we cannot control whether candidates will be honest with themselves or with the board pursuing them.  What we can, and must control, however, is how thoroughly we explain the job and expectations of a board member so that all those busy people know that being on a board will make them even busier than they are now.

Borrow my scare tactic which I have used to my advantage all the years I taught undergraduates.  If, on the first day of class I had a class larger than I wanted, I would really underscore the word on the street:  I was tough and demanding (and I’d play that up, while downplaying) but you will learn so much.  Don’t be afraid to scare them, as eyes wide open is far better than the alternative.  Those who show up will be ready to lean in.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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