Five things your board should be doing (and why we’re grateful for ours)

8 minute read

Ah, the nonprofit board of directors. In theory, nonprofit board members are critical to an organization’s success. Great board members bring skills, connections, and resources. And when a board is engaged and invested, it just makes the work a lot more fun and rewarding.

Truly great boards are few and far between, which is pretty unfortunate, because a board can make or break an organization. After all, nonprofit board members are the legitimate “owners,” responsible for representing community interest in making sure an organization is doing the work it supports. There’s a rule of thumb out there that out of every four board members, one will be an asset and three will be dead weight. Having worked with lots of boards over the last decade, I’d go a step further and say that the “dead weight” directors have the potential to actually harm an organization. In a Stanford survey of 924 nonprofit directors, 69% of organizations had experienced at least one serious governance problem in the last decade.

Last fall, after term expirations for most of our directors, we recruited an almost entirely new board, with a real focus on selecting directors who were passionate about our work and ready and able to go beyond the requisite twice annual board meetings. We had an eye for people that were truly invested in our success and could match the relentless dedication of our awesome staff. And, we were looking for people willing to buy in at an admittedly difficult time when changes in the political and funding landscape were causing uncertainty in our future. Having finished our first quarter with this new board, I can’t help but look at some of the ways they’re getting involved. Ways that are sadly rare—and very much appreciated.

  1. Ask the tough questions without blame or criticism…and ask how they can help. Good board members ask questions. They actually read the program updates and financial reports, and aren’t afraid to voice concerns. Great board members are constructive, and—most importantly—work to find solutions. Early in the year I sent our finance committee an update on our financial projections, highlighting pain points on the horizon. Now, with many boards I’ve worked with in the past, I’ve been lucky to get a response at all (unless I’ve been willing to prod and poke until there was a weak sign of life on the other end). This time, the committee chair responded with the question I’ve only seen a handful of times in the last decade: “How can I help?” This willingness to roll up her sleeves, have tough conversations, and strategize on problem-solving, is an invaluable trait in any board member.

  2. Know all the staff—not just the executive team—and be willing to work with them. Our project directors are the lifeblood of our team. The truly bust their rears to make sure we execute our projects successfully, and without them there’s just no way we could effectively pursue our mission. In nearly every organization I’ve worked with, few board members—if any—knew the names of anyone outside the executive director, let alone had the interest in getting involved and supporting their work. In the first few months of this new board, we’ve had a board member work with a project director to talk through our M&E and Context Assessment Frameworks and give feedback on how to develop these projects in the coming months. Another requested a meeting to learn more about our ICT4COP project, wanting to know how he could support the project director and her work. And all have proactively expressed interest in reviewing and giving feedback on concept notes currently in development. This level of engagement not only helps to support SIMLab’s work, it sends a clear message to every staff member that they’re valuable teammates, not insignificant subordinates. It boosts morale…and just makes the work more fun.

  3. Get engaged and talk passionately about the work…and not just at board meetings. It is one of my biggest frustrations when board members can’t even meet the minimum requirements of attending board meetings—which typically only happen once or twice a year, and for many organizations, are virtual. So often, even when they do manage to show up, they’re checked out. At best they dip in and out of the meeting, at worst they’re so silent you’re convinced they’re either secretly on another conference call or have dropped off entirely. When board members do engage in board meetings, and even better, go beyond, it’s a beautiful thing. The SIMLab team uses Slack for communication, and when we recruited our new board we decided to invite them to participate. We’re grateful to have board members that regularly post in Slack and on Twitter—providing good reads, giving thoughts and feedback, and just generally showing that they have a real passion for and commitment to what we’re trying to do.

  4. Bring connections and resources. This is a big one. It’s no secret that the most successful organizations have boards that are involved in leading fundraising (and, specifically, have clearly defined expectations of bringing in new funding). This is perhaps the most challenging piece of any board—most directors are uncomfortable with the idea, and the staff is even less comfortable asking. But there’s no question that this is perhaps the most critical thing a board member brings to the table. For those organizations that don’t have a give-or-get policy, board members should at the very least be willing to not only open their rolodex, but work to make connections themselves. (Note to directors: giving development staff an email address or phone number is not making a connection—it’s leaving them with what will probably be a brutally unsuccessful cold call). We’ve been fortunate to have board members that have been willing to make personal introductions, and as a result are having conversations with potential funders we may not have had otherwise.

  5. Get s#*% done. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen board members offer to do things—be it setting up a funder meeting, conducting a board evaluation, giving feedback on performance—and never have anything happen. And if it does, it’s only through relentless hassling from the staff. So it’s been nothing short of awesome to watch this year as we’ve had two newly-formed committees start work on action plans for the year, connect us with foundations and funders, and respond promptly to emails (hallelujah!). Good board members aren’t figureheads: they offer to get involved and work, and they follow through.

We’re not perfect, and neither is our board, but we’re challenging ourselves to be transparent and open about where we need to improve. There are three areas that are critical to board and organizational success that we’ve yet to meet, but have begun to address:

  • Absence of a board chair. This is a phenomenon that is painfully common. And even for those who do have someone in post, many are a nominal head, and nothing more. A chair is, without a doubt, the most crucial appointment to a board. The chair sets the tone, is the greatest asset for the executive director, and provides essential leadership and direction. I’ve been lucky enough (albeit rarely) to have worked with strong chairs, and in one particular case this person prevented the organization from shuttering through strong business acumen and some killer connections. But the unfortunate reality is that most chairs end up guilted into post because no one else will step up to the plate. With an all new board, we’re fortunate to have had our directors step into vice-chair, treasurer, and secretary positions—all of which require them going above and beyond. But we’ve begun searching for a new director to fill the chair position. Someone with the experience and drive necessary to lead our board and partner with our CEO to ensure our success.

  • Dealing with a troubling funding landscape. I mentioned earlier that our board has been instrumental in connecting us with potential funders, and it’s true. But even with these new connections we aren’t out of danger, and face a difficult year ahead. Right now SIMLab doesn’t have a give-or-get policy with our board, and although it’s a policy employed by the strongest nonprofits, it’s unclear whether we’ll institute it with ours. Regardless, as stewards of the community our board knows that SIMLab’s financial stability is, ultimately, their responsibility. We’re working on how our board can better lead and contribute to business development beyond the initial connections they’ve already made.

  • Taking a good look at where we need help. If there’s one thing SIMLab’s passionate about, it’s monitoring and evaluation. We know that, just as we evaluate our work and our staff, our board needs to embrace self-monitoring and evaluation. A truly great board works to acknowledge not only its strengths, but its weaknesses, and—most importantly—find solutions to improve. To date, we’ve never had a board conduct a self-evaluation and identify weak spots—but that’s about to change. Our board will be working on this in 2017 so that we can not only hold our current directors accountable, but nail down what’s missing and what talents we still need.

We’re pretty damn excited about the work we’ve got ahead, and grateful to have such talented and passionate group of people who’ve engaged in a way I’ve only seen a few times in my career. A huge thank you to our directors for all the work they’re doing to position SIMLab to deliver the work we’re so keen to do.

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