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How Nonprofits Can Survive A Bad Board Of Directors

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One of the best fundraisers I have ever met was let go after 10 years of loyal service and blockbuster success doubling fundraising.

(And yes, she is available if you want to see her bio or email her.)

This fundraiser is so talented, successful, and brilliant she is written about in published books by fundraising legend Tom Ahern. I even have a “greatest hits” deck of all the great fundraising campaigns, Facebook campaigns, and donor reporting she’s done.

She is the stuff of legends.

So how do things like this happen to great leaders loved and adored by their donors and team?

Poor board leadership.

Many board members are woefully inexperienced. They may not have served on a board before and lack any training or professional expertise in fundraising, how to handle conflict, how to hire, support, and manage an Executive Director, or how to create successful leadership transitions.

They may occupy a role I like to refer to as an “idea fairy” – where they perceive their sole duty is providing ideas to be implemented by staff.  As in… “Ask Michael Dell for money!” or “Ask Ellen if you can be on her show!” or…”Just ask Bill Gates for a grant!”

Conversely, they may play the role of “the decider” where their sole responsibility is to not perform any actual work but do the heavy lifting of deciding what work will get done and by whom. They swoop in to make sweeping unilateral decisions, sometimes with great consequences that are not fully thought through. They leave, not to deal with the fallout or appear again until the next board meeting when they convene again to make  — you guessed it — more “tough” decisions.

How can an Executive Director survive a bad board?

It isn’t easy. Recruiting, training, and managing a board of directors is the hardest job an Executive Director will ever have. I say that as a recovering ED myself. Many EDs do all the right things and still end up parting ways with their bad board.

What can you do as an ED to survive and thrive? Here are 5 tips to help:

1. Find a group of peers

There is no job harder or lonelier than the ED role. The job is relentless and unforgiving. Join a peer group of other EDs on Facebook, LinkedIn or in your local AFP chapter. Can’t find a group? Build your own!

2. Hire outside help

There are lots of great executive coaches out there who can guide you through tough times addressing issues with your board, from Founder’s Syndrome to term limits or the myriad of other conflicts you might encounter. My advice is to look for a coach with a background in mediation and whose services include facilitation and retreats so you can engage them to help you evolve the board in larger ways than just working with you one on one.

3. Take care of yourself first

If you don’t take good care of yourself who will? This world needs your talents. You feeling burned out hurts you and your cause. Put on your own oxygen mask with these great tips from my friend Beth Kanter’s new book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit and try her self-care plan to start implementing self-care behaviors to reduce your overwhelm.

4. Know when to walk away

Every Executive Director and every fundraiser deserve a Board of Directors (and boss) who understand fundraising and respect the role that it plays in fulfilling your mission.  f fundraising is the f-word at your organization, I can assure you that the grass IS greener at other nonprofits. Prioritize making a career change to an organization that has a thriving culture of philanthropy.

5. Keep your network active (you never know when you’ll need it)

Keep your resume up to date and important files on your personal network.  Regularly document your accomplishments and glowing words of praise from your staff and donors so you can use them on your resume, for references, or recommendations.

Frustrated with your bad board and want some help?

Grab a copy of Rachel’s eBook: Makeover My Board How to Lead, Inspire or Even Fire Your Board loaded with tips for how to change the board you have and how to give “graceful exits” to underperforming board members.

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