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Stop The Nonprofit Board Blame Game: Board Engagement with Hardy Smith
Nonprofits are constantly expressing frustration about board member engagement. My research shows there are many board members who are equally frustrated about their board experience. To get beyond the frustration, organizations must recognize why board members don’t perform as expected and correct practices that contribute to broken relationships with their board members.
Hardy Smith is the author of, Stop the Nonprofit Board Blame Game: How to Stop the Cycle of Frustrating Relationships and Benefit From A Fully Engaged Board. As a consultant and speaker Hardy works with nonprofits and associations that want fully engaged boards.
His results-oriented approach is based on a career of more than 30 years in the high-performance world of NASCAR racing. That experience included strategic planning for the development and growth of some of the country’s largest sports and entertainment facilities and spectator events.
He also has a decade of senior leadership experience in local government.
His in-depth understanding of the needs of associations and nonprofits comes from extensive professional and personal involvement with nonprofits, volunteer-based organizations, and community groups nationwide. He has held numerous local, state, and national volunteer leadership positions.
He has certifications in nonprofit management, volunteer administration, and personality assessment.
Whether guiding a strategic planning process or facilitating a critical thinking session, Hardy has recognized the ability for helping develop organizational focus.
Whether speaking in-person or virtually Hardy is known for delivering presentations that stimulate audience engagement. He incorporates personal stories, humor, and provides plenty of how-tos to reinforce key message points.
As an authority on performance issues confronting nonprofits and associations, his insights for improving organizational performance have been featured in numerous leading publications. He has a large social media following and publishes a widely read newsletter for association and nonprofit leaders. He is a contributing blogger for BoardSource. Hardy is a faculty member of the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Institute of Organizational Management.
He is a member of the National Speakers Association, Association of Fundraising Professionals, BoardSource, Florida Society of Association Executives, ASAE, and Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Learn more about Hardy by visiting his website: www.hardysmith.com
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. It’s Hugh Ballou with another episode of The Nonprofit Exchange. I am excited about today’s session. We always have good guests, but it’s a different one before. It’s the author of this book: Stop the Nonprofit Board Blame Game. We want to blame everybody else, but maybe we played a role in this thing. Maybe we set it up wrong. Maybe we aren’t doing it up to the standards that we want to see. We are going to talk about this with Hardy Smith today. Hardy, tell people a little bit about who you are. Why did you write this book?
Hardy Smith: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you and everyone who is a part of this tremendous podcast. Hugh, as a consultant and speaker, I have a long-time personal and professional experience working with nonprofits nationwide. My primary focus when I am assisting nonprofits is working with those organizations that want to benefit from fully engaged boards. That creates pretty much a white-hot topic area. I have a results-oriented approach that was developed during 30 years of working in the world of NASCAR racing. It’s a different background than most of those who are involved in nonprofits. But I enjoyed it very much.
The question of the day: Why write this book? I believe that there is a tremendous need. All of us working in the world of nonprofits, the social sectors, totally understand the mass across-the-board frustration that exists. That frustration is generated by lack of engagement or too much engagement by board members who aren’t performing as expected. There is a tremendous need for what I believe this book offers. There has been a lot of advice over a long period of time that is shared in this sector on how to deal with this very dysfunctional situation. In my opinion, and I think all the research shows, the advice that has been offered hasn’t produced a result. I saw an opportunity where results are needed, and I set out to deliver that. That’s what I believe my book does.
Hugh: Uniquely enough, in my keynotes and trainings, I use the analogy as a conductor of an orchestra. You want to build this high-performing team. In the orchestra, you have people who are very skilled, but they don’t give up that skill to be part of a team.
Now here is another analogy I use. You have seven guys who jump over a wall. In 13 seconds, they change four tires, fill up a tank with gas, and clean the windshield. If it’s 13.1, you have probably lost a position on the track.
Hardy: Too slow.
Hugh: It’s really important. What we don’t do in nonprofit boards is rehearse for success. We show up and do the same stuff and expect good results. What is wrong with that picture?
Hardy: If you go back to the pit crew picture in Daytona quickly, every single one of those individuals, jack man, tire guy, impact wrench guy, windshield washer guy, and the crew chief calling the shots. Don’t forget the driver. Every single one of those is a specialist. They are highly skilled. They are recruited to perform a certain function. The arena they perform in, it happens in a matter of seconds. It is repeated only three or four times during the course of a race. That’s their job and responsibility. Very intentional by teams when they are putting together the top pit crew because as you said, fractions of seconds can cost a race.
This is a picture of Daytona where I’m based. The Daytona 500 is coming up in a few weeks. A football field a second. That is the speed that these NASCAR cup cars are traveling. If you lose a second in the pits, you have lost 100 yards, which in the course of history of Daytona 500s, that is plenty of time to lose a race.
Let’s make the connection from NASCAR to nonprofit boards. The NASCAR teams are very intentional about who they recruit. The challenge here with too many nonprofit organizations is they are not intentional about board recruiting. I am an advocate of recruiting board members, getting the right people. You do that by recruiting with purpose and process.
What do I mean by that? Nonprofits wait typically until the very last minute without any forethought for filling board vacancies. They know when the end of the year is. They know when board terms are up. They know when a vacancy is going to occur, but they just wing it. They look for slot fillers. Who can we grab? Who knows somebody we can stick in a seat?
My challenge to every nonprofit leader that is with us this afternoon is how important is your mission? You might be offended. If you are, that’s okay. If you’re offended by me asking how important is your mission, you should take it to heart that you need the right board to make sure that mission is happening. You have to be intentional about it.
The way you do that is you simply first identify the what. What is it that you need? Every organization is unique. It’s not a cookie cutter approach as far as this individual will fit on this board, and they will automatically fit on any other board. I don’t believe that’s the case. Some individuals will be great wherever they are. Every single board is unique. You need the skills that will help your organization in its unique purpose.
When you identify the what, then the who. Who is it that has what you need? Work in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute. Consider what sports teams do. They are constantly recruiting. They are constantly on the lookout. Football teams, basketball teams at the college level, they know who the top youth prospects are in junior high or middle school. They are tracking those for years prior to offering a scholarship. That kind of intentionality, recruiting board members with purpose and process, is what I advocate for nonprofit boards.
There are personalities to consider. There are all kinds of things to consider. Will someone be the best person, a good fit for your board? What the book addresses are two things: 1) Those organizations that don’t take this approach and 2) Those organizations that do, you may have a perfectly high-performing board, but you have to make sure you always do. For our members of the clergy that are with us, you can’t let those boards backslide.
Hugh: You got it. If you’re driving in a race as a NASCAR driver, you’ve probably driven in other cup series before that. You’ve had some experience. We don’t want to go cold turkey and say, “George, what about being on my board?” Then we lie to them about how it’s no work. They know you’re lying. Why do we have this guilt about asking people to serve humanity?
Hardy: I know the answer. It’s not guilt; it’s not shame. It’s because you’re afraid the person is going to say no. If they say no, you’re not sure who else you’re going to ask. Going back to my previous comments, you haven’t put any intentionality into your recruitment process. What happens is we talk about board engagement or lack of engagement. It’s bait and switch. You know what you’re going to ask a board member to do once they say “I do” at the altar. Once you get to that point, it’s a little bit late to start having a conversation that will work out well about what your expectations for the relationship are going to be. Not having conversations in the recruiting process and the orientation onboarding conversation about what’s expected. Sometimes the best answer, when you’re recruiting an individual, might be no. That’s the best answer for the nonprofit and the individual.
Hugh: I find as a trained meeting facilitator that I create diverse perspectives in ages and skillsets. There are many ways to slice diversity. If everybody is a subject matter expert, that’s dangerous. I served as the board president of the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra. We had a number of people who weren’t musicians. We needed business heads, legal heads, event heads. Of course they all appreciate music.
Two things. As we approach the ideal board member, we need to start before we want them to go live on the board. Are there other groups they could join prior to being asked to be on the board so they could get up to speed on what we’re doing?
Hardy: Fantastic question. There is research primarily from the Board Source Organization—I am a blogger for Board Source—that shows there is an amazing knowledge gap of board members not knowing their roles and responsibilities. That shows up as a constant deficit. That criticism of lack of knowledge is coming from nonprofit staff. Board members aren’t criticizing themselves. If nonprofit staff have an issue with board members not knowing what they need to know, you can’t know what you’re supposed to know if you don’t know it. Whose job is it to provide that education?
In the recruiting process, in the onboarding process, continuously through the board service experience, reexplain, clarify, get acceptance of that responsibility. That is a huge deal. You have to explain what is expected. What is it they need to know? Do you need to provide the experience for a board member? Just because they have been on another board doesn’t mean they were doing it right there either. There is a lot in sports about are you practicing to get better, or are you practicing to get bad? How are you practicing? You have to provide the training and the experience necessary, especially when it comes to leadership development within the board itself.
Hugh: There is a lot of under-functioning boards. From my perspective, I see a lot of over-functioning leaders that do too much. The board members throw up their arms and say, “What’s the use?” How often do you see that?
Hardy: I see it quite a lot. There are two situations. Unfortunately, there are circumstances when the professional staff is of the opinion that life would be a lot easier if they didn’t have to mess around with these volunteer leaders. “We’ll just use them because we’re legally required to. We’ll just do it that way.” That’s what I call treating your board members like mushrooms. You keep them in the dark and cover them with manure. That’s just not right.
The second thing is quite often, a nonprofit professional can figure out, “It would be a lot easier if I did it myself.” That’s like writing a strategic plan for yourself or getting sponsors for yourself. “I don’t have time to fool with the board. Besides, they are probably busy anyway.” Huge mistake here. Once you start excluding your board members, you’re reducing the opportunities for them to feel ownership for the cause, for the nonprofit. Once they start seeing that the executive director is going to do everything, “what do they need me for?” You have just flipped the switch on disengagement. That’s so wrong in so many ways.
Hugh: Those are classic problems. We tend as leaders to point the fingers and blame—back to your book title—other people when we actually set up the problem. Is that true?
Hardy: My research agrees with you. What I found in my research is while the finger of blame from that nonprofit staff leader is pointing toward board members, there are so many board members that are frustrated by their board service experience. Very highly qualified, very highly motivated board members often get totally turned off and disengaged because of a number of repeated mistakes that organizations make in the relationship with their board members.
Hugh: My, my, my. A common problem, especially for early-stage nonprofits, is where do I find people?
Hardy: That’s kind of the big question. A lot of big questions. Where do I find the right people? Let’s go back. Identify the what. What is it that you need? A new start-up organization probably needs a board that not only provides governance, some fundraising as well, but also manpower. They just need board members to get out and rake leaves or pick up trash or wash stray dogs or whatever it is that the nonprofit is an advocate for. Then you have the more sophisticated, more mature organization where they need board members to be more strategic-minded, perhaps some high-level fundraising activities. Then the in-betweens. It depends on where your organization is in the life cycle. It’s always evolving.
You have to commit to putting the necessary time in, doing the work, to find the people that you need. If you wait until the last minute, like so many organizations do, you are going to get what you have always got in the past. I call them slot fillers. You have individuals who are taking up a seat around the board table. They don’t fully understand your mission. They are involved in too many organizations with too many commitments. They are not committed to your organization. You are not the #1 priority on their multi-list of other organizations they are involved with. You are just not expending the effort to get the best possible board member.
Shop around. Look for organizations. If you’re a local organization, look in the community for who the individuals are who are not actively serving on other boards. Who are the young up-and-comers? There is bound to be well-qualified people, very passionate people, who would be willing to serve on your board if you would just simply ask them.
Work with your existing board members. Who are they friends with and colleagues with who they would suggest?
Here is another one: Ask your staff also. Your staff is out there in the community. They have a whole lot of community connections. Probably most staff members are not included in board recruitment conversations. Those are a couple of ideas.
Hugh: Great ideas. I have seen this model work in a number of groups. I am not a fan of advisory boards, but I am a fan of advisory councils. You put the title of board there, and they think they get to vote. A council is a farm team. Doesn’t matter how many you have. If you have people passionate about the work and could even participate with the board of directors on a strategic planning workshop, or could serve on committees, they are invested already. That is a person you could easily tap because you are seeing how people perform and are stepping up to their commitments.
Hardy: That applies to volunteers, too. If you use a lot of volunteers, who are those individuals who are consistently showing up and are very interested in your cause? They are dependable and passionate. Give them a looksee.
Hugh: There is another piece that I find is a blind spot and a deficit for nonprofit leaders, especially founders. They get their friends to start on the board with them, and they never ask them to donate. “That’s a big mistake.” “I can’t ask them to do that.” Yes, you can.
Hardy: Having the money question is something the book addresses. Money is a very serious issue. It’s a personal issue for everyone. What I am a strong advocate for is have the money question up front. If I am recruiting you to be on the board, if I am not letting you know that we are expecting every board member to write a check of X amount- Let’s expand the conversation to raising money. I am talking about direct solicitation, not support-type activities of writing a letter. The money question is so critical. If the organization is expecting you as a new member to write a check, then I am totally off base if I don’t let you know that in the very first conversation we have. If I don’t, and you find out later, like you come to the first meeting and the board chair says, “Welcome to the board. When will you be writing that big check that every board member writes?” the board has probably just lost you. That’s what I call bait and switch. We are afraid to have the money conversation up front because we are afraid we will lose you. As a matter of fact, most people don’t like asking other people for money. Even though I am willing to ask you to be on the board, I am not willing to ask you to write a check.
Hugh: You might as well ask them to write the check because if you don’t, they are going to waste it somewhere. I’m at the point in my life where my wife and I donate to a number of organizations. It feels good to be able to do that. You are depriving somebody of the commitment to support that organization financially. They are donating their time; we know they can go raise money. But if they are not willing to give money, how are they going to ask other people to give money? Come on. We don’t think that through. There are negative things we tell ourselves about money. Just make it upfront. It’s a matter of fact. That’s good advice.
Back in the book, there are some chapters I highlighted here, 13-15. There are communications, which in 33 years of working with nonprofits, that has never failed to come up as a problem. Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.
Changing the board performance culture. We have learned things wrong and inherited bad systems.
The other one is board leadership. Take any of those if you will, and let’s talk about why those are important.
Hardy: Let’s jump on communication. The key here is communicating effectively. Underline “effectively.” If I were showing you my PowerPoint as part of a speaking engagement, the word “effectively” would be underlined and in red. In the research I have done, board members have shared with me that missed communications, failure to communicate, breakdowns in the communication activity, that is the #1 reason for disengagement. That is the #1 reason for board members not doing what they are supposed to be doing.
Let’s hit a couple of quick pointers here. Frequency is certainly important, but it’s not totally about frequency. What are you communicating? How are you communicating? The timeliness of the communication. Board members do not want to be surprised. Remember this. Visualize your board room, all the faces sitting around the table. Every single one of those individuals has an individual preference on how they want to be communicated with.
When I worked in NASCAR racing, I worked for Bill France. Bill would ask me for a situation report, and I would launch into a full-scale report that I worked hard on. He said, “Hardy, I just need a weather forecast. Is it raining? Yes or no? That’s all I need.” Boom, boom, covered. That was his personality preference. If he wanted more information, he would ask for it.
What I’m suggesting is nonprofit leaders and board leaders, because they are communicating with their board members, too, is you have to do the work necessary to understand how each one of your board members prefers to be communicated with. Do they want a big board packet? Do they want a short video? Send them a text. Tweet it out. An email newsletter. What is it? Probably most nonprofit leaders are saying, “Great. We have enough to do. You have just loaded us down with more communication work.” Yes. How bad do you want a successful relationship with your board members? Anyone involved in a long-time successful relationship, they will tell you communication is the #1 key to a successful relationship with another individual. Same thing applies to board members. Communicate effectively.
Hugh: It’s not a bad idea to have lunch with everybody over the course of the year.
Hardy: You have to maintain the personal connection. Connectivity leads to relationships. Relationships lead to trust. Trust leads to collaboration. Collaboration leads to engagement.
Hugh: The nodding board, I have seen boards where the leader talks at them. Then they come in and nod. They go home and do nodding. Nothing happens. How do we break that cycle and change the culture and performance of the board?
Hardy: Terrific question. The issue here is if you have that type of board meeting dynamic, they are a turnoff. If you’re not sure about that, pay attention to attendance. Are board members asking questions? Do they have comments to share? Why did you pick them in the first place? If you don’t want to hear their opinions if you don’t value them challenging a thought or program or idea that the organization is considering, why have them on the board to start out with? They will be having the same question in their mind. Then your board has become a turnoff.
If you flip the switch, make your meetings a cannot-miss meeting because they are stimulating and engaging, they are utilizing individual board members’ talents and skills, tapping into their passion, you have a board that will produce unlimited results.
Hugh: The last question is you have a chapter onboard leadership. There is a pattern I have seen where board members show up and ask to be told what to do. They don’t want to accept responsibility or take on initiatives. That is not the right frame of mind, is it?
Hardy: It’s good to ask that question. That’s a good natural question. But if that’s the extent of the path that they are going to take to be a leader on your board, I think you have probably got trouble coming. If you are trying to accomplish something significant, they won’t be the ones to provide the dynamic leadership that is going to make a difference for your particular cause. Again, just like board members, when you are developing the board leadership, what do you need? Who can do it? Just because someone has been on your board for a long time, and it’s their turn to be the chair, how serious is the mission of your organization? You have to be intentional about your board leadership. They might not have the skillset or experience for facilitating engagement by volunteers. Just because they may be the leading principal of the largest business in your community doesn’t mean they understand how to successfully lead a group of volunteers. Totally different situation. How bad do you want it? Do you want a successful board leadership for your board? Then you have to make it happen.
Hugh: I said that was my last question, but I lied. Board succession. One of the models is that you recruit somebody to be a board president-elect or chair-elect. Then they are chair-elect for a year to parallel the chairperson. Then they are the chair. Then they are the past chair. That is a three-year cycle. Is a year-long enough to get some traction, or should there be a six-year cycle? Two as prep, two on, two past. What is your opinion on that? That’s a long time.
Hardy: I would suggest in today’s world, six years is a long time when you are asking someone to be on that leadership ascension path. “Hugh, I’d like for you to get on this path. Here is where it goes. That is a six-year commitment.” That is a long time. Narrowing that down, president-elect, president, past president, that is half of that time.
I would suggest providing specific job descriptions of what to expect for your president or chair-elect to do to prepare them to take on that top leadership role. The same thing for your past president or chair.
Another thing I would suggest is to have those three positions coordinate what that team of three would like to achieve in the three-year period of working together. It’s a relay. You can’t reinvent the entire world in a 12-month period. You can only do a limited number of things. That’s a reality that too many leaders fail to understand. What can you do in three years? The three individuals holding those three key leadership positions, let’s divide it up. Who takes what and when? Years one, two, and three.
Hugh: Those are good answers. You can find Hardy at HardySmith.com. You will find this really good book on Amazon, Stop the Nonprofit Board Blame Game. That should be in every nonprofit leader’s library. It’s a step-by-step process on how to do all of this stuff, and a lot more. Hardy, thank you for seeking me out. I’m glad I paid attention and got you to be my guest today. Any parting thought or tip you’d like to leave people with?
Hardy: I would reinforce your very strong commercial for my book. The book is written as a resource. It not only identifies problems, but also provides solutions. More importantly, the solutions have specific how-to’s. It’s a book to be used and put to work. I would encourage everyone to buy the book. It’s on Amazon. Let it help you make a difference for your nonprofit and nonprofit board.
Hugh: Hardy, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Hardy: Thank you, Hugh.