By Joan Garry
I have always been a sporty person. As a kid, softball and basketball (yes, even though I stand at a towering 5 foot 2 inches tall).
In the last decade I have been more strategic. I picked up racquetball a while back – only needs two people, can play regardless of the weather and heavy cardio. Next up for me will be pickleball and platform tennis.
I do love a good sport. Great for socializing and not gonna lie. I have a competitive streak.
I’ve learned that nonprofit leaders love sports too.
And I’ve learned they have a favorite – Board Bashing!
Executive Directors consider it sport to blame the board for lots of things – not responding to emails, not reading board reports, focusing on the trees rather than the forest. And oh yes, then there is the sport of nagging board members to raise money and getting nowhere.
Executive Directors seem to really enjoy complaining about their boards. It’s like they would like the board to just go away and leave them alone.
So today, let’s play that game.
What if after a lengthy nagging session at a board meeting, your board members stood up and never returned.
Or if one day you sat at your desk and said, “I wish my board would disappear.”
And they did.
What would your E.D. life look like without a board?
GREAT NEWS: YOU ARE NOW TOTALLY IN CHARGE
Wow! Exciting! Your board disappeared! No one to micromanage your decisions. No more writing board reports nobody ever reads. No more needing to spend time crafting monthly emails alerting board members of big successes. Emails that get no responses.
You don’t have to waste a single ounce of energy being frustrated that the board isn’t raising money.
You can decide on the centerpieces for the gala. You can do all the outreach to potential sponsors. You can do all the fundraising, manage the staff, recruit volunteers. No board members will get in your way and you don’t have to be disappointed that they are not helping/supporting/partnering.
An entire team of folks who are passionate about your organization’s mission have just disappeared. I know you think that they aren’t always very present, but gone altogether?
That doesn’t seem like a good thing does it?
YOU’RE NOW TOTALLY IN CHARGE: IS THAT REALLY SUCH A GREAT THING?
Consider some of the following:
- You’re not a CPA and it’s audit time. You don’t have a big staff and the auditor has just asked a question and you are clueless. Where do you turn?
- Someday there will be a gala. Wouldn’t it be great if each of your board members worked the room and said hello and thank you so that every single guest met an organizational leader? Yes, it would be. But your board disappeared, remember?
- When your board disappeared, so did the money it raised. Some of (not all) your board members gave generously. Not anymore.
- Oh. that connection you had to Wells Fargo. That meeting your board member set up with the Head of Corporate Social Responsibility? She asked for a proposal! They were really good friends. Is it possible she asked because of that relationship? You try calling her to check in. Huh. She’s not returning your calls.
- You have zero experience with strategic planning and it’s time to make some strategy work happen. The board that disappeared had five different folks with experience. You were banking on at least one of them agreeing to lead a committee and work with you. No such luck now.
- A thriving nonprofit is like a twin-engine jet and in that cockpit is always a pilot and a co-pilot. Executive Director and a board chair. When something goes wrong – financial crisis, staff unrest, community crisis, do you really want to be flying solo? With all those passengers aboard (stakeholders, donors, clients)? No board? You are on your own my friend.
OK, IF YOU DON’T REALLY WANT YOUR BOARD TO DISAPPEAR, THEN…
- Enough already with Board Bashing. Done. Over. You can’t play anymore. Time to instill zero tolerance for this amongst staff, volunteers and nope you can’t play with your good friend who runs another nonprofit in town.
- Repeat after me: The board you have is the board you build. It’s time to start thinking strategically about what this board of yours needs to look like – skills, attributes and expertise. Invest in adding maybe 1 or 2 people whose values align with yours, who bring something of value, and whose pilot light for the mission of your organization shines brightly. One board member can be the kindling you need to ignite your board.
- Pay attention to who your NEXT board chair should be. The game of Board Bashing often includes nearly hilarious stories about the lack of leadership on your board – that the recent board chair was elected while in the restroom. You know how the game goes. I talk to clients who complain about their board chairs and it’s like the person just landed from Mars – as if the client has no clue how they got the second most important job in the organization. If you ask yourself right this minute, “Who on my board could be our next board chair and would be really terrific?” and you don’t have a good answer (i.e. nobody, Surina but she’s too busy and will never say yes or Katina but she isn’t on our board yet), you are not spending enough or the right kind of time investing in leadership development on your board.
- When was the last time you gave your board goosebumps? How about we try that game instead? I’ll admit. Approving minutes can be incredibly exhilarating (that was a joke) but it will take more than approving minutes to ignite your board to take action, to become ambassadors and storytellers. I was working with an organization years ago and the board chair said this about the upcoming retreat we were working on. “All of us on the board hear how lucky we are that Vanessa is our E.D. – that when she speaks at conferences, she lights up the room, she brings people to tears, she calls people to action. We never see that at board meetings – can you ask her to give us some of that at the retreat?” Oy.
- If you focus on the low performing board members you will take the others for granted. Don’t. Appreciate your board at least once a year. You can, I promise you, find one nice thing to say about each member of your board.
You are a fierce advocate for your cause, your clients. You sit in front of folks and ask them for time and treasure to support the work. You make (made?) speeches at galas that inspire attendees to think about their place in the world – to consider how they can contribute and bring a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives.
And yet, far too often, Executive Directors are downright passive when it comes to the critical task of strengthening the board – building leadership, identifying new board members and taking a good hard look at how (if at all) you invest time to fuel them, to brighten their pilot lights, to ignite them to feel a sense of urgency about the work and enthusiasm about sharing the impact of your work on others.
A thriving nonprofit is like a twin engine jet. It demands two high functioning engines. Staff. And Board.
Boards can be frustrating, but you need ‘em. And you need to invest in ‘em. Cause ain’t nobody (as much as we all want to travel) gonna board a jet that’s missing an engine.
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