How can I learn more? Please contact Sallena for more information about Board Development consulting packages for your non-profit Board of Directors. She generally works on-site at your location to facilitate trainings and meetings. Follow-up coaching can be done or via phone or video conferencing.
In 1982 I attended my first Board Meeting. It felt like such an important event. The big glossy table and velvet-curtained windows of a borrowed meeting room set the stage. I was to be the Directors’ scribe and guide, as the new manager of their non-profit community association.
I quickly learned a lot of “passion” walked in the door with those seven volunteer board members, and unfortunately, that unbridled passion was attached to veiled personal agendas.
Within minutes, the carefully outlined Agenda seemed abandoned and the meeting was off track. It was clear that there were some unresolved conflicts and some rigid factions that had formed, polarizing some of the members. However, my boss Kaye Hall Youngren brought the meeting back on track with an artful blend of tactful inclusion, blameless compassion, and calm focus. I had the privilege of learning from her — one of the most talented communicators I’ve ever known — while we worked together for the next six years.
Over my career I have been the staff member (manager or executive) to over 65 Boards of Directors, sometimes attending up to 10 meetings a month! That’s between 800-900 non-profit Board, Committee, and Annual meetings !
I am a natural student of human behavior. Within a short amount of time patterns of behavior and cycles of board, productivity became clear. Most Board members choose membership or accept nomination out of a genuine desire to serve the purpose of their organization. There are always a few, however, who are trying to fulfill a personal need — to control, to feel valued, to fill a social deficit, etc. A skilled facilitator or executive can most often transform those energetic “shortcomings” into powerful forces for good! It’s a kind of “collaboration aikido”.
Common Board Concerns
Conflict, whether out in the open or submerged, is one of the leading reasons for Board member and Executive Director apathy, or even worse, resignations. In either case, talent is lost and the organization forfeits a resource and a piece of the “whole”.
Community organizations and their Boards of Directors can be fertile ground for conflict because:
- Directors can be very diverse people. They can come from very different walks of life and different professional environments. Board members are often essentially strangers to each other. They might not ever have the opportunity for a conscious conversation about how to work best together. They usually see each other so infrequently that it’s challenging to develop the solid working relationships needed to create a coherent team.
- Non-profit Board Members are often passionate, sensitive, and caring people. Without the proper guidance and information systems, some let their emotions lead their decisions.
- Board membership rolls over relatively frequently and there can be a great learning curve for new Directors and Officers.
- There can be a struggle getting all Board Members unified in terms of mission, goals, and priorities in the face of many competing and important demands. Depending on their history with the organization, or lack of it, Directors may not feel very invested in, nor see the gravity of the decisions they’re making.
- Most people do not have much experience in the alternative democratic structures and processes of most non-profits; which are usually non-authoritarian, non-hierarchical, collaborative, and inclusive.
- Shared leadership by a volunteer Board of Directors and a paid staff manager or executive can be a tricky dynamic. The Directors have the ultimate authority for making decisions, but they are typically the people who know the least about the day-to-day operations of the organization — that is the job of the executive and paid staff. It’s critical for the Board to keep in mind that even though the executive takes direction from them, their executive’s role is one of leadership and stewardship.
- Often non-profits operate in public, shifting, visible, and sometimes highly-charged adversarial or political contexts. There are almost always funding pressures that can highlight the individual fears or differing values of Directors.
Here are some complaints common to Directors who are members of an under-performing Board:
- “My time is precious. I’m just throwing it away here.
- “There’s no plot to our Board meetings. We go around in circles.
- “I know how to make a difference. I know how to get results. I’ve built three companies. But here, I can’t find any way to do anything that matters.
- “I’m the only one who does anything. We’ve got thirteen Board Members, but it all falls on me. So I’ve decided to quit. I just haven’t figured out how I’m going to tell the ED yet. She counts on me. I know it’s going to be a blow.”
Healthy, Productive, and Satisfying
Rapid growth is possible. Working through the struggles of so many Board “cultures” I have identified some vital behaviors that guide the growth and success of a non-profit Board. If your Board exhibits these healthy indicators, you can look forward to building an outstanding team to accomplish your goals.
- An effective Board looks at the big picture. It is always asking questions such as: “How are we doing in meeting our mission?” “Are we focusing on the most important priorities?” “Could we do things better and more efficiently?” “Are we on track for meeting our long-range goals?” Effective Board officers stay attentive to current trends and cycles and watch for signs of trouble before a crisis erupts.
- A productive Board has a keen sense of priorities. It works from an agenda so that it does not waste time on frivolous issues during meetings, but it also allows time for the natural and valuable rapport-building socialization of the members. It encourages planning and the use of planning tools, freely endorsing time and money spent on anticipating future problems and preparing for them.
- The forward-thinking Board provides growth opportunities for the staff and an orientation program for its members. Staff stability is crucial and the best way to achieve that is by providing employees with the means to develop professionally and personally. Staff retreats are encouraged and good personnel policies are constantly evolving. Members new to the Board, and serving in new Officer roles also need training. Team-building among all members of the Board and its executive staff is crucial to being able to work together well.
- A judicious Board thinks before it acts. When staff and Board Members disagree, every effort is made to understand the opposing side’s position in order to come to a fair resolution. The Board makes sure that the staff feels confident to offer their professional advice, perspective, and leadership. The best executive is a master of collaboration and will be the bridge between several incoming and outgoing sets of Officers with diverse points of view.
- A satisfying and effective Board values teamwork. The wise Board involves members that have skills in accounting principles, legal matters, and programmatic areas — and then fosters teamwork among them. The goal is to achieve the organization’s objectives by utilizing Board intelligence through teamwork. An effective staff or consultant will bring out the best skills of the Directors.
- The outstanding Board constantly evaluates itself and keeps improving. It reviews the organization’s mission annually and re-energizes itself through retreats and other activities. A progressive board invites outside expertise and educates itself in best practices. It also balances its governing role with the organization’s needs for its Directors to be spokespeople, fund-raisers, and program visionaries.
The rewards are plentiful. On the upside, when Boards find that magic sweet spot, work together well, and have the right chemistry between volunteers and staff, the results can be very satisfying and the outcomes tremendous. I’ve had Board members say,”Apart from my family, this Board service is the best part of my life. I really feel like we are making a difference in our community.”
Many have expressed how their job purpose felt like just a paycheck and pales in comparison to the meaning they receive being a part of their favorite non-profit. One Director said, “I don’t get to do anything half as meaningful at work. At work, I’m behind the scenes and invisible. Here people see me. They need me. When I get fired up, they get fired up. Here I’m a leader.”
There may be nothing as bonding as a joint victory — pulling off an event, raising needed funds, serving the non-profit’s “public”, etc. In a conversation with three Directors after a fund-raising board development retreat, the Vice President said, “I’ve found kindred spirits here. I’m going to be friends with some of these people for years if not for the rest of my life.”
It’s good for you. The benefits of Board service extend to your sense of well-being. Nonprofit Board members report a profound sense of engagement and renewal as they share their talents for a worthy cause. Studies show that reaching out to help others improves emotional health too.
Board work stretches you out of your comfort zone, making for a potent combination of personal and professional rewards. It gives you a chance to develop collaborative teamwork skills with a set of highly accomplished peers. It gives you the opportunity to hone small group conversational and presentation skills. If you do not already have the experience and knowledge of dealing with budgets, strategic plans, revenue generation, management performance evaluations, and public relations issues, it’s likely you will be exposed to them sitting on a non-profit Board.
Serving the community enhances your status in your personal and professional circles. You will have access to interesting people who you otherwise ordinarily would not meet, thus expanding your network and your visibility. Working with a diverse blend of others can provide perspectives outside of the silo of your company or industry. Your contributions to a mission or cause outside of your own circles can broaden your horizons to future opportunities and heighten your awareness and consciousness.