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Dear Board Member, How Do I Love Thee?

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I almost included this among my new year’s resolutions articles last month as “Resolved: I Will Help My Board Members Feel Happy.”

Is that a daily mantra for you?

Regrettably, too many nonprofits have the unfortunate tendency to demonize their board rather than love and support them.  

We whine and complain they aren’t giving enough, asking enough, doing enough… yada, yada, yada. We don’t stop and think perhaps we aren’t giving enough, asking enough, doing enough.

Let me tell you a widespread truth I’ve found from my nonprofit practice. 

There are Two Sides to Every Story” 

  1. Staff complain board don’t do enough.
  2. Board complain staff don’t give them enough to do.

And lest you think #1 happens at some organizations while #2 happens at others, oh no. This happens at the very same organizations!

It all depends on perspective.

When it comes to all the complaining, I lay the culpability at the feet of staff. I don’t mean to play the ‘blame game;’ rather I seek to highlight part of your essential role in helping your board be the best they can be.

Very few people ever take a course on board service. They’re well meaning, but often poorly informed. Perhaps they’ve never before served on a board. Or perhaps they served on one where the board simply sat back and rubber stamped things. Or perhaps when they were recruited they were told they wouldn’t have to do much. It’s up to you to gently and kindly take them by the hand, teach them about their dual governance and financing roles, and show them how their service can be meaningful. Not just to you, but to them.

I’ve rarely met a board member who enjoys feeling useless. This does not a happy board member make! Sure, there are some who just want to pad their resume (in which case, ‘getting away with’ doing nothing may be satisfactory). But more often than not this is just an accusation leveled by a staff not doing their job to engage their board. Like anyone else, board members need to be nurtured and coached. Otherwise, it’s unreasonable to ask them to go to bat. 

How to Lovingly Help Board Embrace their Role

I often meet board members who are fearful of fundraising. This is often the elephant in the room holding board members back; it must be addressed head on. In a positive way. 

As the fundraiser, how can you help board members embrace their role as philanthropy facilitators? Please don’t collude with your board members by wallowing in how painful fundraising can be. This just leads to a vicious cycle of everyone agreeing someone else should do this work. Your job is to show board members how joyful the process can be. Rather than agreeing there are ‘fundraising people’ and ‘non-fundraising people,’ find a specific philanthropy facilitation role for each of them.

The best way I’ve found to overcome fundraising fears is to reframe fundraising as philanthropy. Philanthropy literally means ‘love of humanity.’ Helping facilitate philanthropy is a joyful act of love, not a painful act of war. An act of inviting, not fighting. An act of giving, not begging. An act of lifting people up, not hitting people up

I hope you agree.

But reframing, alone, is not enough to make your board members happy. They must feel, deep inside, you really need them to step up to the plate as philanthropy facilitators. You won’t be able to talk to them about the path to passionate philanthropy until you’ve (1) addressed this need and (2) shown them their role in addressing it.

Begin at the Beginning with 4 Steps

Let’s count the ways you can help board members feel happier this year. It begins with getting on the same page around why you need philanthropy, and how they can help.

Address the Need for Philanthropy

1. You Need Money to Survive and Thrive 

What would happen to those who rely on you if were you to cease to exist? Talk about this with your board members, both in group and individual settings. Remind them why they’re engaged with you, and reconnect them to their passion for your vision, mission and values. Make a case for support that helps board confront the problems you address in such a way they are moved to help you defeat them. Emotionally, not intellectually.

2. It Costs Money to Make Money 

You can’t adequately support all the steps along the pathway to passionate philanthropy (aka, major gift cultivation, solicitation and stewardship) absent a budget for professional staff, administrative support, infrastructure and expenses. This one is odd, since most board members seem to understand the concept of ‘investment’ when it comes to their day jobs and personal lives. When they cross your nonprofit’s threshold, however, they suddenly seem to take off their business bowlers, fiscally savvy fedoras and even their common sense caps. Instead, they put on their conservative red pencil visors or penny-wise/pound-foolish panamas. No one is going to accuse them of putting money towards fundraising and marketing, rather than mission. Or of taking a little risk to get a big reward. Guess what? You can’t do mission work absent fundraising and marketing! Your job is to persuade board members investing in the future is a smart strategy. The long game is won by the tortoise, not the hare.

Show Board Members Their Role

3. Using Connections on Your Behalf is Part of Their Job 

You need board members to brag about their affiliation with you to everyone they know! Many fall back on “that’s not appropriate” or “I think it’s rude to talk about what I do” with my friends and colleagues. But that’s part of the reason you recruited them – to use their contacts! Smart organizations recruit board members from different walks of life precisely to broaden the circles of influence they can reach. If your board member has lots of contacts, but won’t use them, how does this help? They should simply go back to being a donor, opening up the board space to someone willing to be an effective ambassador and advocate.

4. Fundraising is Part of Their Job 

You need them to invite people to support your efforts! What do you do when board members say “I’ll do anything but fundraising.” Many board members say this because they fail to understand they have a dual governance and financing role: (1) as a board which sets policy, establishes strategic direction and approves budgets, and (2) as an individual board member who walks the talk to make policies, plans and programs come to fruition – including generating the funds needed to balance the budget. Otherwise, they’re merely creating unfunded mandates (they may as well go work for Congress).This is where you can begin to reframe fundraising for them, showing them they can fulfill their role in multiple ways. 

Continue with 6 Nurturing Strategies

It’s staff’s job to care for and feed the board. Most board members are quite well intentioned; they’ve just never been on a nonprofit board before. They don’t know how nonprofits operate. They’re a little bit scared, but don’t want to admit it. Here’s how to help them:

1. Develop a Strong Board Orientation Program 

Create a handbook. Have recruits meet with key staff who will explain how development, finance, marketing and programs work. Give new members a seasoned board member as a buddy/mentor.

2. Create a Robust Board Development Training Program 

Provide ongoing sessions on a range of topics (e.g., reading a nonprofit budget; public speaking; running effective meetings, nonprofit marketing, etc.). Provide an annual board training on how to inspire philanthropy. Ensure there are ‘mission moments’ at every meeting where members can hear from staff and clients and feel more connected to your work. Board meetings should be a mix of governance work and inspiration.

3. Build a Dynamic Board Nominating/Governance Committee 

You wouldn’t even hire a nanny or housekeeper without lots of thought, interviews and references. Yet many organizations bring on board members just because they’re friends of other board members. You need a vigorous recruitment process. What type of skills do you need? What circles of influence in your community are underrepresented? Does the nominee understand the role you expect them to play? Is the nominee passionate about your mission?

4. Hold Periodic Retreats 

The best ones are focused (e.g., strategic plan; endowment building; capital campaign; board/staff relationships, etc.) and run by a seasoned facilitator. They help the board home in on current challenges and opportunities, and reignite individual members’ passion and commitment. 

5. Meet at Least Annually with each Board Member Individually

Find out their interests. Ask for their advice. Find out what’s not working for them. Discover how you might help. Develop a personal plan for each one so they feel good about their board service. Stay in touch. Build a personal relationship. And, by the way, if you’re a development staff member involved in working one-to-one with board members (e.g., donor relations; annual giving; major gifts; special events), you should attend board meetings and be encouraged to develop strong board relationships. If you’re not invited, that’s a red flag. Sometimes board chairs and/or executive directors don’t like staff present when sensitive financial matters are discussed. Ask if you can be present for the other parts of the meeting, and stress the need for development to be on every agenda.

6. Don’t Let Rotten Apples Spoil the Barrel

If being on a board is unpleasant it’s a bad thing all around. Make sure, first, you’ve got a good chairperson. This individual sets the tone. They should be passionate about your cause, compassionate with others and a good politician. They should understand the role of governance, the difference between your mission (what you do today) and your vision (where you hope to get one day) and the invaluable role donor-investors play in getting you towards your goals. They should partner with the E.D., creating a team that cheer leads everyone else on. Second, make sure you have a process for removing board members who bring everyone else down. Ask them to do something else if being a board member is not a good fit for them at this point in time. Suggest they may be more comfortable, and more useful to you, on a committee or advisory group. Or set them up with a meaningful volunteer activity. You need radiators, not drains. Consider a term limits policy to make rotating folks off the board a natural process. Otherwise, manage your board members off the board.

Ask What You Can Do For Your Board Members 

Sure, you need their help. But they’ll be a lot more likely to offer it if you help them first. Never forget: Your board members are regular people, just like you.

Remember true leaders – board and staff — are those who listen and thoughtfully take in information; then modify behavior based on what they learn. So, rather than complain about what board members don’t do and don’t “get,” try to understand why this is the case. Then count the ways you can love them. Look at things their way, and use empathy to make their jobs manageable and meaningful. That’s the true win/win.

Come from a place of love, remembering the word philanthropy translates to “love of humankind.”  

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