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Navigating the Boardroom: A Nonprofit Leader’s Guide

Nonprofit Board Management
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Many board members step into their roles with the best intentions, but let’s face it: they’re often woefully inexperienced.

They might be new to nonprofit boards. Or even if they’ve served before, they might never have received training in fundraising, board governance, conflict management, or the nuances of hiring and managing an Executive Director. The challenges don’t stop there—how about handling successful leadership transitions? It’s a lot.

So, how does an Executive Director not only survive but thrive in this landscape?

I won’t sugarcoat it. Recruiting, training, and managing a board of directors may be some of the most challenging parts of an Executive Director’s job. I say that as a recovering ED myself. Even the most dedicated EDs can find themselves at odds with their boards—despite doing everything by the book.

Here’s my survival kit—seven strategies to help you thrive as an Executive Director:

  1. Find your tribe. There’s no role quite as demanding or lonelier than an ED. The pressure is relentless, and the responsibility can be immense. Sometimes, you may feel like you’re navigating through uncharted waters alone. But remember, you’re not in this alone. Connect with other EDs on Facebook, LinkedIn, or your local Association of Fundraising Professionals chapter (AFP). Can’t find a group? Build your own!
  2. Engage an executive or leadership coach. Look for an executive coach who specializes in nonprofit management and mediation. Their expertise in facilitation and running retreats can be invaluable, not just for you, but for evolving your board’s dynamics.
  3. Take care of yourself first. Never underestimate the importance of self-care. If you don’t take good care of yourself, who will? You can’t pour from an empty cup; the world needs your talents. Take inspiration from my friend Beth Kanter’s book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit, and integrate her self-care practices to start making self-care a priority.
  4. Choose your battles wisely. Know when to engage and when to walk away. Every ED and fundraiser deserves a board that understands and respects the role of fundraising and its impact on fulfilling your mission. If your board doesn’t value fundraising, it may be time to consider transitioning to an organization with a thriving culture of philanthropy where your work is valued and you feel appreciated and supported.
  5. Maintain an active network. Keep your resume polished and document your achievements. Maintain a personal file of your successes and endorsements from staff and donors to use on your resume or for references or recommendations. An active and up-to-date network is your safety net, ready whenever you need to make a move.
  6. Explore conducting a board survey if you want to change the board you have.  Board surveys are a genius way to open up a runway for you to make the changes you want with your board. Since surveys are board-led, you can survey them on areas of weakness—for example, fundraising knowledge, board member engagement, strategic direction, or board member diversity—and report back that “We heard you loud and clear that we need to boost our board’s fluency in fundraising as well as prioritizing recruiting more diverse members and to do that we will…”
  7. Consider hiring an outside expert to work with your board. As an ED, you can be recommending a major gift strategy for years, but the second the same recommendation comes from an outside consultant, your board suddenly hears it and is ready to act on it. If you can’t afford to hire outside expertise, consider recruiting a top-notch board member who embraces fundraising from another nonprofit to talk to your board about how their board participates in fundraising.

Great boards are no accident; they take a lot of hard work to build. Navigating board dynamics is no small feat for an ED, but with the right strategies and support, you can not only manage but excel in leading your organization and your board to greater heights.

Need help managing your board?  Grab a copy of Rachel’s eBook, Makeover My Board: How to Lead, Inspire, or Even Fire Your Board, with tips for transforming the board you have and giving “graceful exits” to those who may be underperforming.

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