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How To Get The Heavy-Lifting Nonprofit Board You Deserve

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CEOs get the board they deserve! Harsh, but true. 

Steve, a Harvard-trained attorney, and founding CEO of a 30-year-old national nonprofit, learned this the hard way. Steve was used to getting his way. 

I was mid-sentence when Steve begged my pardon and said, “That’s not my board of directors, Laurence. My board is made up of light-lifters, not heavy-lifters.” 

I went quiet. Everything in me was saying, “No. You need heavy lifters on your board.” Instead, I disciplined myself to listen. “Tell me more, please, Steve.” 

The most frequent question I’m asked is what to do about stagnant boards. Stagnant boards are most often filled with light-lifters. If you’d like to talk about these issues, join us on Nov. 1st for a free Bloomerang webinar on how to assess board member contributions

Anatomy of a light-lifter

What’s a light-lifter? This is a person who comes to one meeting a year, and doesn’t return the CEO’s phone calls, or leaves a 6 am voicemail in response saying, “Tag, you’re it.” Light-lifters promise to do this and that, but then you never hear back from them. Talking to many such board members over the years, I’ve learned that they often believe their chief contribution is to permit your nonprofit to associate with their name. “I’m vice president of XYZ Bank. I’m on your board. Isn’t that enough?” They don’t solicit their personal contacts. They don’t roll up their sleeves. Many don’t even include your agency in their own giving. In their DNA, they don’t see a problem. Worse, many stick around for a long time creating a tremendous disadvantage for your nonprofit. Boards full of light-lifters remain stuck at the founding stage of board development. 

The 3 stages of board development

In broad stroke, boards experience three stages of organizational growth:

  1. The organizing stage, driven by the founder(s)
  2. The governing stage, driven by the trustees/board members
  3. The institutional stage, where staff and board achieve integration 

The esteemed Karl Mathiason, III first crafted these stages; I was fortunate to be his student. Karl was clear: You need heavy-lifters to progress through each stage. 

I shared these stages with Steve. Recall that his nonprofit was 30-years old. I asked him what stage he thought his nonprofit was in. Without hesitation he stated, “The organizing/founding stage.” I concurred, but gently pointed out that 30 years had passed! 

Boards are about heavy lifting, yet many board members can be characterized as the opposite

At its core, the heavy lift of governance is about crafting the future—meeting the fiduciary duty, the strategic oversight, legal compliance, and stakeholder alignment are fundamental, but they’re only heavy lifts when there’s dysfunction, or unethical or illegal conduct.

We often talk about the nonprofit’s mission, vision, and values, but the vision, working on where the organization is headed and how it will get there, is the responsibility of the board—especially within the powers conferred in its executive committee, in sync with the CEO.

If you’d like to talk about these issues, join me on Nov. 1st for my free Bloomerang webinar on how to assess board member contributions.

The heavy-lifting board

Heavy-lifters are engaged—fully engaged—with the life and growth of the organization regardless of its stage. They readily apply their skills, talents and connections, and wealth to contribute to the nonprofit’s advancement. Ideally, a board of directors is thinking about what the nonprofit will look like and accomplish in five to ten years. 

A heavy-lifting board grapples with questions like, “How do we define success? What do we want to be remembered for? What will our work ultimately accomplish, how will we measure that impact, and how do we prepare for getting there?” 

The most compelling studies of board satisfaction show that the happiest trustees are engaged with planning for the nonprofit’s future growth and success. That’s what they truly want!

When I look back at the boards I’ve been associated with either as their fundraising counsel or executive director—boards that spurred the organization forward—there’s one essential characteristic that defined those heavy-lifting board members. In different ways and for various reasons, they were each indispensable. 

Further, each of those boards had a singular character. For example, Harlem United Community AIDS Center located in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx where I served as the CEO in the early to mid-1990s sought to define a new dimension on performance based on Peter Drucker’s definition of innovation. And they in fact accomplished real innovation.

What happened to Steve? He retired and the organization folded. 

Steve got the board he deserved. 

What will you get?

We’ve only skimmed the surface of this important subject. It surely raises more questions than it answers. For example, how can we tell who’s indispensable in the moment? Isn’t that an assessment made after the fact? What do we do about cleaning out the light-lifters from our board? What role can an Honorary Council play in these transitions? What are you doing to support the heavy-lifters you already have? 

These are the issues we’ll discuss in the webinar. Be sure to join us on Nov. 1st for, Boards Are About Heavy Lifting, to learn more.

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