As nonprofit leaders and advocates, we look forward to board meetings like we do to putting gas in the car. It’s a necessary activity, but there are about a dozen other things we’d rather be doing. Getting the leadership and board members together is obviously critical to sustaining the organization. So, why does it feel like such a hassle?
In the nonprofit world, boards provide strategic guidance, raise funds, and make connections. The issue many of us face when meeting with the board is an issue of disconnected judgment. Executive director, staff, and board member interaction can seem tedious and even messy at times – even under the best circumstances. At worst, the nonprofit team might resent prepping for weeks to entertain people they perceive to be well-meaning but ultimately disengaged know-it-alls.
In ideal situations, the nonprofit and the board members have an established relationship and enjoy mutual trust and respect for each other’s roles. The board members maintain an ongoing awareness of nonprofit operations and strategic initiatives, and come to the meeting with questions and informed recommendations. But an investment of time and energy on both sides of the relationship is needed to build this foundation.
To start, confirm that the nonprofit mission is clear. In most cases, this is a straightforward exercise. In groups going through a significant change in their approach or population need, however, this mission might be a bit fuzzy. Bringing clarity to the purpose and function of the organization is a critical first step.
Second, ensure that the board members are clear on their roles and responsibilities. Setting expectations for their participation is best done before they join the board. Many nonprofits are getting more disciplined in this regard, but even many high-profile boards struggle with this essential step.
Next, because board members are with the nonprofit staff so infrequently, they often lack sufficient understanding of what normal organizational operations look like. The solution to this problem is to build an experiential component into the next board meeting. Here is an example of how you might do this.
1. When developing the board meeting agenda, set aside at least half a day to see and experience first-hand your nonprofit staff at work. Select a range of functions from serving the beneficiaries (if logistically possible) to finance and budgeting.
2. Mimic typical daily challenges to the greatest degree possible. Obviously, most staff, patients, or clients will behave differently when there is someone unfamiliar around. Introduce the board member to anyone they meet and explain what is happening. Include a description of common, everyday challenges, and the solutions to those problems that have evolved over time.
3. Split board members up among the various functions you’ve selected. Create pairs of staff and board members that you believe will click with common interests or communication styles. The benefit is that the board member will be exposed to a passionate person who will naturally seize that opportunity to reinforce why the work is so important. They’ll also see the strengths, weaknesses, and risks to the program up close.
When the experience is over, reserve space in the agenda for the board members to ask questions or share observations with each other. After seeing your nonprofit operations and initiatives firsthand, board members should immediately gain a greater understanding of how work is done. This increased knowledge will help them prepare more precise recommendations for your consideration. They also will likely be inspired to redouble their fundraising efforts after they see the great work and impact being made on the community, issue, or cause you serve.
Robin Camarote is a meeting facilitator and leadership team development consultant for federal and nonprofit organizations. In addition to consulting, she writes regularly for Inc.com and Government Executive on leadership and increasing your positive impact at work. She is the author of Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow, a best-selling book on organizational behavior. She lives with her husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia. Visit her website and find her on Twitter @RobinCamarote
This article is reprinted from Issue #8 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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