To a Good Year

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 28th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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For most of us, the signal that summer is over is the start of school, a return to traffic congestion and wry expressions regarding how quickly the season flew by.

Another signal that summer is over is nonprofit boards returning gearing up for the coming year.

I always approach the fall with high hopes for nonprofit boards; that they’ll accomplish all of the positive goals they set for themselves, or talked about setting for themselves, or wished they’d set for themselves.  I offer some very simple, basic guidance on how to make this a great board year. And as we know, if the board has a great year, the organization will have a great year, too.

  1. Set some goals.  I don’t care if they aren’t strategic goals, just have some goals.  Goals keep us focused, and have everyone driving in the same direction with everyone’s energy and effort focused on achieving those goals.  The goals can be small:  cleaning up the board, removing those who don’t participate, aren’t involved, aren’t carrying their fair share, have overstayed their term limits; or do a thorough review of the bylaws.  Or the goals can be big:  start (and complete) a strategic plan or introduce performance assessment for all board members.  Best would be a combination of the small and a big, as long as they move the board forward in a positive direction.  Just don’t overdo it!
  1. Stop whining.  About everything, but mostly about the fact that you are volunteers, instead, design the job (and yes, being a volunteer board member is a job) so it can be done by volunteers.  Most likely, that means not having four people trying to do the work that should be done by a dozen or more.  Nothing pushes interested board members away faster than a few hungry board members who want to run the board (and often the organization) by themselves, all the while complaining how no one else does anything.  I recently did a board training where every time I asked “Who is the chair of …” or “Who does ….,” before anyone else could answer, the board president said, “Well, it is supposed to be so-and-so, but I do it.”  Was he responding quickly and cutting others off from speaking or had he so disenfranchised they others they didn’t even want to pretend to be engaged.
  1. Stop talking and move forward.  Experience has shown me that boards have a sad tendency to revisit and revisit and revisit.  Enough already!  No person who misses a meeting should be allowed to co-opt the next meeting she does attend and take a board back over territory covered at her missed meeting.  And no facilitator of a meeting should allow that to happen.  One of the worse examples I’ve heard came not too long ago when I was told of a board that held the election for its officers.  The slate was voted on and passed, with two dissensions.  That is a board member’s prerogative; using it should not be cause for worry, as it is part of the system of majority rule.  Concerned, the board president put the election up for discussion during which it was suggested there be a “re-do.”  There should be a nominations process (if not, perhaps this could be one of your small goals for this coming year); it should be followed and the outcome adhered to, regardless of who likes it or not.
  1. Create a culture based on trust, mutual respect and honesty.  Though I always talk about board service as a 24/7 job, the reality is that the amount of time that we actually give to that work is far less than that.  It is, therefore, imperative, that our work as a board is not impeded by cliques, game playing, those in the know and those not, those who we like and those who we don’t.  When you only have 16.2 board members (the average size board in the United States), you must be getting the max out of each individual and out of their time together.  The amount of time, energy and goodwill boards ravage by the games played—frequently, but not always—by the leaders of the board is absurd.  If we could channel all of that effort into fundraising, many, if not most, nonprofits would not be suffering quite as badly.

Suggestions 1-4 have been intentionally general, so that every board can pick where it needs to be and on what it needs to be working.  But if there is one specific suggestion I’d like to see all boards embrace this year, and one that addresses suggestions 1-4 above, it would be to make this the year where you create a culture of philanthropy (a euphemism, but in this case an important one, for becoming a fundraising board).  Philanthropy isn’t about asking for money; it is about improving the quality of life for mankind.  In order for that to happen,  yes, we need money, so, yes, we will need to get funds.  But let’s stop calling it fundraising, as that scares people off and, truth be told, it is misleading.  Let’s call it what really successful fundraising is all about 90%-95% of the time:  relationship building, cultivation, building loyalty.  The vast majority of people quake when you say the word “fundraising”.  (Sadly, it is almost Pavlovian).   Few, unless they are serious introverts, quake when you say “building relationships.”  Most people love that sort of thing.  When we understand why donors like us and see supporting us not as an imposition but as a pleasurable choice, when it comes time to make an actual ask, the quakes won’t even be in the room.

As Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner, Shana Tova.  For everyone else, A Good Year!

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.