Susan Schaefer, CFRE and Bob Wittig, MBA recently joined us for a webinar in which they shared the story of how they worked together to re-engage an ailing board.
In case you missed it, you can watch the replay here:
Steven: All right, friends. Well, my watch just struck 1:00 here in the Eastern time zone. Do you want to go ahead and get started officially?
Susan: Sounds great.
Steven: All right. Cool. Good afternoon everyone on the East Coast or good morning if you’re on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar, “How We Did It: An ED and Board Chair Duo Share Lessons, Confessions, and Tools to Fix What Ails Your Board.”
My name is Steven Shattuck. I’m the VP of Marketing here at Bloomerang and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion as always.
Just a couple of housekeeping items before we begin. I want to let everyone know that we are recording this presentation and will be sending out the slides later on this afternoon. If you have to leave early or if you want to review the content later on, you’ll be able to do that. Just look for an email from me in a couple hours after we finish. You’ll be able to review all those resources.
As you’re listening today, please feel free to use the chat box right there on your webinar screen. Both presenters will see those questions and we’re going to save just as much time at the end as we can for Q&A. So, don’t be shy at all. Send in your questions and your comments. We’d love to make this as interactive as possible towards the end.
Just in case this is your first Bloomerang webinar with us, welcome. We’re so glad you’re here. We do these webinars just about every week. In addition to that, our main servicing offering is donor management software. So, if you’re interested in that or perhaps you’re in the market for that, please do check us out.
You can look at all of our features. You can get a video demo, you don’t even have to talk to a salesperson if you don’t want to. So, check us out if that interests you. We’d love to keep that conversation going as well.
I wanted to go ahead and introduce today’s guests, Susan Schaefer, CFRE is here with us and so is Bob Wittig, MBA. Hey there, friends. How’s it going?
Bob: We’re good. Thank you.
Susan: Great. Thanks for having us, Steve.
Steven: Yeah. I’m really excited about this one. I know we’ve been planning it for a little while. Susan, you have always had a special place in my heart for being my first guest ever on Bloomerang TV, our video podcast. So, it’s definitely fun to have you back as a webinar presenter. Bob is a new friend of mine, but I’m really excited to hear from both of you.
Before you get started, I just want to tell people a little bit about both of you before you get started. Susan is a consultant. She’s a writer. She’s a speaker. She’s got a practical approach to fundraising and board development that made her a frequent presenter at conferences and in classrooms. She also teaches a course at Johns Hopkins University, which is pretty cool.
Since 2001 she has been working at her own consultancy, Resource Partners, LLC, where she provides profession, ethical and collaborative fundraising counsel to nonprofits. She’s edited a lot of books, one of them is The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook. She’s an active volunteer. She’s served as president development chair for organizations as well as other leadership positions on boards.
Her partner in crime today is Bob Wittig. He has been the executive director over at the Jovid Foundation in Washington, DC since 2002. In addition to grant making, he’s hosted a monthly lunch club for grantees, for grantee EDs and a breakfast club for grantee board members. He’s also helped spearhead the effort to develop a colocation organization over in DC, very cool stuff.
Bob and Susan have been working together for a little while, ever since Bob became the ED at his organization. They’ve coauthored a book together. Obviously they have this presentation and I’m really excited to hear it. So, I’m going to pipe down. I’ve said too much already. I’m going to kick it off to you two to get us started. So, why don’t you take it away for us.
Bob: All right. Well, thank you, Steve. Thank you everyone for being with us today. We are really excited to talk with you about our experiences. As Steven was saying, Susan was a board chair ultimately at an organization where I was the ED. Since that experience, we talked for probably, I guess, at least 10 years about writing a book about that experience because we thought if we could do it, anybody could do really do it. It’s not rocket science.
My experience at this literacy organization here in DC and the last 13 years at the Jovid Foundation, I’ve seen countless examples where when an executive director and the board chair and the board can really figure out how to do that dance together, that partnership dance together, the organization really benefits and it really becomes very sustainable and it thrives. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to have your bumps and your ups and your downs, but you really can weather all of those storms much better if you have a true working partnership, wouldn’t you agree, Susan?
Susan: Absolutely. I just wanted to add on to what Bob is saying a bit. We came to writing this book together in part because of our experience and as Bob said, he was the ED. I was a board member, eventually a chair. I’m going to talk through you doing this. But if you are an ED versus a chair or maybe you’re neither of those, if you could just tell us in the chat where you fall along those lines, it will help us customize our remarks depending on the kind of audience we get.
If you want to just quickly type in your answer and I’ll just say that our experience, we have talked about for years, in depth and there’s really just not a lot of conversation about how to make these things work well. What we decided to do over the course of many years is put our collective experience on that board and now with many others over the years into a book that really is geared for board members, which we thought was pretty unusual.
As I see increasingly, most of you participating are on staff, we hope you’ll share this resource with your boards because there are very few resources, we think, for board members. “Nonprofit Board Service for the Genius,” as you can tell, is kind of a tongue and cheek way is to get your board members reading about their basic responsibilities in a way that many of them don’t frankly learn enough about before they sit on a board. So, it takes a very practical approach.
As you can see, one of the practical things that I went through and we’re very honest about in all these talks that we do together is the fact that this is how I felt my first day on the board at this organization. Bob, I should say, was not on staff yet. But this is an organization that had been around for about 10 years, and adult literacy school that offered GED services and testing and I was a new board member. I had really been invited by the ED at the time, but frankly knew not too much about the organization, which happens a lot.
This was my reaction at the first meeting. Why? Number one, the culture. There were a lot of community activists on the board at the time, and let’s just say they took that activism seriously and took it into the boardroom. We had Saturday morning meetings and it was a lively environment in a way that was sometimes productive, sometimes not so much.
The other reaction, the other reason that my reaction was this way, as you can imagine, the first meeting toward the end, someone started talking very sheepishly about the fact that our budget wasn’t looking so great and that we may not make payroll and then it turned into, “Well, we really won’t make payroll this week. Can every board member please pull out their checkbook and write a check for payroll this week?” I’m dating this experience a bit because we were all carrying checkbooks at the time. But needless to say, this still happens a lot at organizations.
I just wanted to say for any of you who have ever felt this way, like the crazy Gene Wilder, that it was a slow and gradual process, but eventually and really in the scheme of things, it didn’t take terribly long until we created an evolution where this founding board just put one foot in front of another and certainly took some steps backwards but made things work. Bob and I are both very much in favor of the idea that anybody on the board can be a change agent. It does not need to be the board chair.
For those of you who are listening who are not chairs or for those of you who feel like you’re at your wit’s end with the chair, it can happen with others, what we like to call “board champions”. But it really gets to the point where, in the story we’ll tell today, this was a small group, shaky finances, no transparency and really, a trust that the funding would materialize.
After maybe two or three years on this board as I was starting to take more of a leadership position, we did one of the best things we had done, which was to hire Bob as the ED and we also had some very strategic people we also brought on to the board. I was the first person that they considered a professional person as a fundraiser. Apparently they were being very strategic. They wanted a fundraiser on their board. I think there was one lawyer.
We got to the point where we were really interested at that point in bringing great people onto the board as Jim Collins says. We did not have an amazing vision at that time, I will admit. But we just knew that we had to get some of these people, frankly, off of the board who were very loud and interested in just espousing their political and other positions on things and we needed to calm things down.
It was really about bringing people on who had the seriousness for the mission and the excitement and the commitment and were ready to do this for the long haul. Bob was certainly among them. I’m going to turn it over to him to talk to you a little bit about what happens when you’re the ED on a board that is in such a state of flux and transition. Even if it’s mostly positive, it’s never easy.
Bob: Right. Exactly. But it’s possible. I’ll start out to say that this transition took about three years. So, I think it really ties into the culture.
The organization, as I mentioned, was an adult literacy program in Washington, DC. The founder was still on staff. She had been on the board, but when I came on as executive director, she was on staff. I believe at that point in time, the board was largely, probably at least half were still what I would consider either originally founding board members or they were really closely tied to the founder.
There was a real overall mentality in the organization of a founding organization. That’s not a bad thing. But that was something to contend with because in particular, the board, I think, felt it was limited by that. It felt itself limited by what it thought it could or should or shouldn’t do based upon that mentality of being a founding board. They really didn’t, I think it’s fair to say, Susan, they didn’t know their roles very well as well.
As Susan alluded to, the finances were . . . so, the culture was something we really needed to shift. But I think as I talk about these other points down below, those really together helped change the culture. Culture is like a very slow moving process.
I used to tell everyone there were two times. There was Bob time because as the executive director I wanted everything much quicker than it did and there was board time. So, usually I had to default to some of the stuff to board time because things just took a long time because of the culture. But as Susan said before, the finances of the organization, when I came onto staff, were really in disarray.
The organization at that point in time, much to my dismay, discovered that we had less than four months of really money in reserves. They had built up a little bit of a reserve. It wasn’t quite payroll to payroll. But there was nothing in the pipeline. I came on. No grants had gone out the door. As many of you on the phone know, grant writing can take four to six months at best to actually get money in the door. So, I was panicked to say the least.
I think when you’re operating in a situation where many nonprofits operate from place of scarcity. They’re under capacity or they’re always looking for more money. But this was a little more severe. Whenever you’re in that situation where your cash flow is super tight all the time and you’re pinching every penny, the culture becomes very reactive. I think that’s what Susan was talking about before.
From the board perspective, there was just a lot of reactiveness to the board because the money wasn’t there. I also noticed that the staff was also very stressed out because they didn’t know from month to month if they were going to get paid. So, the finances really contributed to a reactive culture in the organization rather than one that was proactive and forward thinking, which then also affected the board, I believe.
The fundraising part, again, was very much, and Susan, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it was a real founding mentality fundraising. So, they had a lot of events that in the day when the organization was first founded, they could literally have a bake sale and sell a few cupcakes and cookies and have a spaghetti dinner in the fall. They had this book sale that took bazillions of hours to pull it together and it raised all of like $1,000.
But back when the organization was young or first started, those kinds of activities really substantially funded the organization. While the funder was at the helm being executive director, that’s what they did. It was very much, I would say, Mom and Pop fundraising. The board was able to participate in that, but the outcome was not a lot of money was being raised.
There was an executive director right after the founder before me. She was able to take the organization to a little bit of another level, which meant there was more of substantial budget and more staff. So, there was just more categories where funding had to be secured to support the operations of the organization.
The disconnect I realized when I came on board was that the board of directors was still in the bake sale/book sale mode when we really needed to have a gala or something bigger to really help fund the operations of the organization to really help it turn the corner. So, we spent a fair amount of time, as much as I could with the existing board, really trying to transition. That was challenging because many of those events that they had, the spaghetti dinners, all of that, were very near and dear to a lot of founding board members.
So, figuring out how to transition to the board to a new mindset of fundraising was something we eventually did, but it took time. Unfortunately for me, a lot of the stress for the initial fundraising fell on the executive director. I’m sure many of the executive directors on the phone call definitely relate to that.
We had this dilemma of finances being tight and shaky, fundraising needing to transition. While the board people were very well intentioned, they really didn’t have the skill set to really provide the bench strength that I, as an executive director, needed to help me make sure the organization would have its ultimate mission impact.
What we set out to do was, again, it was incremental and a bit slow, but to really start bringing in new people on the board that were not tied to the founder. It’s nothing against her, but we really needed to make the board more professional. Susan said she was the first one to come on. Were you the first outside person, Susan? First non-founder?
Susan: I think there was one lawyer and then it was me.
Bob: Yeah. So, we really needed to professionalize the board. We had to be very specific about what we were looking for. I know we brought on . . . I needed more fundraising help. I also knew I needed change agents on board to help me move that board culture. So, we were very strategic about who we brought onto the board and then we also needed to look at how we recruited people. I’ve worked with organizations at my time at Jovid, in particular at the foundation.
Usually when there are issues with boards, if you trace back, the recruitment is the issue. How people are recruited and how people are brought on to the board is largely, not solely, but largely the crux of the problem. So we had to really look at, one, how we were recruiting people and what we were asking people to do when they joined the board. None of that had been very well . . . it was very informal and not really thought through, so we very much formalized the process.
What we did is we first instituted term limits and then really enforced them. I think that’s one of the issues with a founding board often times is there are not term limits. That’s usually the way they’re started. That’s not good or bad or right or wrong. That’s just the reality of it. That was a way, by putting the term limits in was also a way to help some of the longer term board members think, “Maybe it’s time for me to transition off.” And it gave them permission also to transition off.
We also spent, believe it or not, it was over a year it took, as I recall, Susan, to come up with a board commitment form. They had never had one before. But going through and really detailing what we expected board members to do and everything from the time commitment to the amount of money we expected them to make as a gift to the organization committees, leadership, all of that was detailed on that board commitment form.
Again, it took so long to do because that was a really big culture shift for the board. But when we had those pieces in place, our recruitment was then very targeted and we were very clear what we were looking for in terms of people coming onto the board, and then when people joined the board, they knew what was expected of them. Now, nothing is fool proof. I’m not going to be on the phone here today and say if you have this recruitment process and you do it, you’re going to get 100% of your board members giving 100%.
But I think, Susan, we really upped the engagement – don’t you think – of the board by bringing on new people who understood what they were supposed to be doing. It just provided more opportunities. That started the shift, I believe, of the board culture changing because I had more champions on the board to advocate for different ways of the board engaging and supporting some new visionary strategies that I wanted to implement as well and kind of move the organization that I thought would benefit the organization in the long run.
Then leadership was also another really interesting aspect in that when I came on board — and I swear this is true — the original board chair, when I was hired, she rolled off. What they did is they literally went to the back of the room after one of the board meetings and they came back out and said, “So and so is now going to be the board chair.” And I had zero input into that.
Unfortunately, the person they chose was a really nice person and well intentioned, but she was not the person that we needed at that point in time to work partner with me to keep the momentum going for the organization. And that, quite frankly, I was very upset about that. What we then did was I insisted that in terms of leadership, as executive director — and this should be the case for all organizations — the executive director needs to have a voice, ultimately the board decides, obviously, but the executive director needs to have a voice in who the leadership of the board is going to be.
The officers and the executive director can also be very helpful in identifying committee chairs and, after all, the executive director works with all these leaders very closely. You want to make sure that the executive director has some input into that process. That changed as well.
Going forward after that, we then not only did the officers talk about . . . and I was included in that conversation about who should be potential leadership for the board the next year, but then we also were very intentional about making sure we had a leadership pipeline where Susan was vice president and then she was moved into president.
That was stated as an expectation that if you were in that role, that 9 times out of 10 you were moved into the presidency role unless something changed in your life. So, we really helped create this leadership pipeline, which gave the board continuity and gave me the assurance that I could keep a partnership going with the board so that, again, the fundraising and governance responsibilities of the board could happen.
Then lastly, when I came on board, the organization had never done a strategic plan. It was under Susan, when Susan was chair we conducted the first strategic plan. I have to say, I think strategic plans can be of two natures. They can be one where it’s the typical binder where there are 85,000 recommendations and nothing happens or they can be really realistic ones that detail the role that the board plays, the role that the staff can play to really achieve the vision of that strategic plan.
We had, I think, a really excellent process our first time out of the gate. We had a very realistic work plan that clearly identified for the board what their roles were going to be in this work plan to help achieve the goals of the strategic plan. Now, that included fundraising and a bunch of things, but it was very clear what they were going to be doing and it gave everybody a blueprint.
I just want to underscore that a strategic plan is a really great way to make sure that everybody is on the same page and pulling the rope in the same direction and it can really provide good guidance for the board. From an ED perspective, it gave me a way to really check in and say, “Well, you all said you were going to A, B and C,” and it gave me a way to do some accountability back to the board because we had a document that we had all agreed on.
You can see where the finances, fundraising, recruitment, leadership and strategic planning, all of those together, by the time I left the organization, the board really had transitioned into a very different place. Again, it was a three to five-year process, but I think it was a much better culture for creating a space for the board to be engaged, thoughtful partners. The organization, when I left, had a year in reserves. So, you can see the teamwork together completely transformed the organization.
After that long spiel, Susan, I will turn it over to you to talk about how we work together and we’re still talking together today.
Susan: It is miraculous, isn’t it? Not only having done that, but worked together now for a long time in other capacities. So, as Bob alluded, eventually I became chair. I’ll admit as much as anyone that when I became a board member, I really was na�ve about what was going on in terms of the role of the governance body and all of that. I have to admit, I was intimidated by it. So, I did a lot of reading, a lot of studying on it and it is something I think we all want to encourage on our boards on an ongoing basis. There’s always room for improvement and to build that into a culture is very helpful.
By the time I became chair, which was probably three or four years in, I didn’t know a lot about boards at that point. I had talked to a lot of people and Bob thankfully was of a similar mindset that as a leadership team, these were the four pieces that really held together our partnership.
Frankly, the chair that Bob alluded to a minute ago who didn’t work out so well, I was party to watching a lot of the downsides of that and how difficult it was for Bob to work with this person, even though she was extremely nice, extremely committed to the mission, but really just not in a place where frankly, I think, she wanted to be chair, let alone was building her skillset to do so.
So, we decided very early on after having watched that transpire, her chairmanship transpire that we were going to set expectations and we’ll talk about this in more detail in the next slide but very specifically for ourselves. Number one through communication. Bob and I, I remember very clearly sitting down to talk about the times we would meet and how we preferred to talk to each other, how long those conversations would be and the fact that we’re going to be very honest with each other, as hard as that was.
Now, were there times where not everything came out? Probably. It was probably sometimes due to time constraints and what not. But I think what made our partnership work is that we always gave each other the benefit of the doubt. So, if Bob didn’t tell me something and I found out about it later or through another board member, I never looked to blame him.
It is something that no matter what your leadership position is, it’s important for us all to just keep in mind and remind each other that we’re there for a mission and we should really give each other the benefit of the doubt whenever possible because it’s those feelings of distrust that can really start tearing things in the wrong direction. As most of us know, it can take so long to build the kind of culture that Bob is talking about and, really, does not take long to tear it back down.
One of the reasons that I thought the honesty piece worked well for us is that follows through in whatever it is you promised to do, whether you are a board chair or an ED or anyone else associated with that board team. The idea of following through and keeping your promises to each other, keeping your commitments, it really shows that level of honesty and communication and expectations.
So, it’s just those subtle signs that says to people, “I’m doing what I say I will do.” And it does allow for that benefit of the doubt because if you’re falling through on things as simple as making phone calls or showing up to meetings on time, if something does fall through the cracks, people will give you the benefit of the doubt and that inevitably helps with the culture all around.
Bob: Can I add one thing, Susan?
Susan: Yeah, please.
Bob: I just wanted to underscore that from my perspective that what was critical, everything that Susan just said, but I had great respect for Susan and I felt she had it for me. What was underneath all of that was immense trust. Susan knew that if something went amok with the organization, I would tell her.
I also knew that if I was having trouble or challenges with a particular board member or just something else in the organization, that she had my back. I’ve talked to a number of executive directors who have very strong relationships with their board chairs. That’s the one thing that many of them say. They believe the board chair has their back.
That’s really important because running a nonprofit as an executive director is a little bit lonely because there are very few people you can really talk to. The board chair really becomes really kind of a touchstone in many ways, not all the time, but for me that’s how it worked out. You can’t have that kind of a relationship unless you feel you are respected and you respect the other person and that is all enveloped in trust. I just wanted to underscore that because I think that’s critical.
Susan: Absolutely. I agree. I will add to that that I’ve since been on boards where I did not, frankly, have the greatest personal relationship with the ED and I think this goes on both sides. This can serve you if you’re on the staff or the board side. It’s just so difficult and yet so important to put those personal feelings aside and keep the mission in mind. So, I agree, the respect and the trust piece is enormous and it’s key to keeping the relationship and the board moving in the right direction.
When we get back to expectations, I really do think this piece is critical to sit down with any new leader, whether it’s the ED or the chair or even the new committee chair and to set the expectations early. This even applies to a rank and file board member. As Bob said, if you have a board commitment form, the most important thing you can do is show those to the people you’re recruiting so that they know from day one what you’re expecting of them.
It is absolutely the best way to start raising the bar. You’re specific about exactly what you want from people, “We need you to be at 90% of our board meetings,” or 80%, or wherever you put that mark. Then of course there’s accountability to hold people to that and have serious conversations about it and not to undersell the commitment that you need.
I think these kinds of pointers really just apply across the board to everything we did at this literacy organization to change the culture. We followed these kinds of rules with new board members, with older board members. We started raising the bar and saying, “We need you now to sit respectfully when someone else is talking and listen.” As simple as that sounds, that was not something that people were ready to do.
The great thing about setting expectations that specific is that if people disagree with the expectations you’re setting, they do start thinking about whether or not this is the right place for them anymore. Many of us in the nonprofit sector, we’re so nice to each other and we don’t to create conflict and we don’t want people to leave. It can sometimes be the best thing.
One of the best things you can do to start turning over your board to a new group of people is to allow them the space to lead, to talk to people when they’re not making the expectations and say to them, “Look, I’ve noticed that although our board commitment form says that you need attend 90% of the meetings a year, you’re only here for 60%. What’s going on? Is there something I can help you with? Do you feel that this might be a good time to move into a different role for the organization?”
If someone says yes to that offer, you want to very quickly embrace them and thank them for their service and find another role for them and make sure that you are helping to move things in the right direction and you’re not losing somebody but you’re helping to place them somewhere else.
With that, I’m going to turn it over to Bob to get into some more of the nitty-gritty of this expectation setting and what that means for transforming the board.
Bob: Yeah. I just wanted to add to that last slide that Susan was talking about and then also just about changing the culture. One of the mind shifts that we had to go through . . . and when I work with boards, one of the first things I say to them is that it’s an honor to be on this board. You’re inviting someone to be on a mission that is doing its part to make the world a better place for your community, your neighbor, whatever it is.
That was something that really changed this particular board of this literacy organization is that it was an honor to be on this board and that really changes how people view themselves as board members and their willingness to really be engaged in the mission, right? I think that expectation needs to be really conveyed that this isn’t just, “We’re inviting you to have a seat.” This is an honor and you earn the seat and you need to do what you need to do to stay on the seat.
So, as Susan was saying, I’ll go through a list here, but before I go through the list, I also want to just overview and just say that the reality of it, from my perspective is that an executive director, and this is part of the nitty-gritty, I guess. It’s not one of our bullet points. But the executive director really plays a critical role in board management and really helping to lead the board. I think sometimes there’s this misconception that the board chair and the board, they are the bosses of the organization.
While it’s true that they hire, fire and evaluate the executive director, the executive director plays a critical role in really helping make the board engaged because the saying I ran across while we were writing our book is, “Board members are part-time volunteers managing a full-time operation.”
The person that knows best, really what’s going on, the nuts and bolts really knows the nitty-gritty of the day to day is the executive director. So, the executive director plays a really key role in really how engaged the board can be. An executive director who really wants an engaged board can have that. I’ve also seen often many times executive directors that really don’t want that and then they don’t have that.
So, the executive director really plays an important role, I guess is the main point in setting the tone for how the board is going to be engaged. I think that’s really important for those you who are executive directors. I had to really look at my role toward the board. I always tell executive directors to be careful what you ask for. If you want an engaged board, that’s what you’re going to get. That’s a good thing, but it’s different than having one that’s not engaged. A lot of times the ED is the reason for the board being one way or the other.
As Susan was saying, I think for me it was really important that we had, as I mentioned before, these conversations. I think we did have a regular schedule, like we talked once a week. I could literally pick up the phone and call Susan. I know we talked more than once a week. It was just regular check-ins.
Again, because we respected each other, I would call her up — and, Susan, you can verify this — even if I got grants of $10,000 I would call and be so excited and tell her and she shared that enthusiasm. I wasn’t just calling her when things were going wrong, but it was really we had regular conversations. I think for the most part she really knew what was going on for the organization.
My charge and my commitment to the board is that there would never be any surprises, like Susan was saying at the beginning. The board shouldn’t come together and find out at the board meeting they don’t have enough money to make payroll tomorrow. That’s a surprise. There really should be no surprises. I really operated from that perspective that there would be complete transparency.
We talked a lot. The conversations were respectful. We also really shared the pre-board meeting duties and we really worked together to create the agendas and make sure the information got out to the board. I believe we were pretty respectful of each other’s time, although I called her all the time. Maybe I wasn’t totally, but I think we really realized that she was working full time doing a job and I had stuff to do. I think we were very respectful, going back to that respect.
But I think the other really important part in the piece that the executive director plays is setting the vision. The organization has a mission but it’s the executive director that really is the one that really develops this mission and articulates it. And it’s the executive director that, from my vantage point, when I was running the literacy organization, I saw the potential and the possibility that this organization had. I just was so excited about it. My job, one of my jobs, was to make sure the board bought into that and was excited about it as well.
During my time at this organization, we started some new programs and it was a very exciting time of transformation for the organization. My commitment to our students who were low income, very marginalized residents in DC, adults, was that they had the best of everything that we could offer them. I wanted them to feel that when they came into our school that they mattered.
The board really bought into that vision. Even though our space wasn’t maybe the best space but everything in there was better computers, everything worked, good phone systems. We kept it painted. There was this real commitment for the board for that vision that we wanted to get our students the best, but then also this excitement about as we started raising more money together, we were actually able to launch other programs. I think it just kept building on itself and generated a lot of excitement and further engagement by the board.
So, I will turn it back over to you, Susan.
Susan: Right. The next natural question would be if you’re having thee regular conversations and if you’re being honest, what the heck are you talking about, especially in those early days. Of course it’s about things that are going right and going wrong. But in terms of aligning the board well, how do you get these relationships off to the right start?
In our experience, again, it goes back to being very specific about your need as an ED, as a board chair, as a committee chair even. Part of that, of course, is talking about strengths. I do know that we both felt strongly about, for instance, talking regularly. But when Bob cited the idea of talking once a week, I bet there are people on the line now who are cringing about the idea of talking once a week. I know that’s much too much for some people. But in our case, it worked okay.
It is really about saying my strength is I can talk in a burst of about 20 minutes and be really focused and that’s the time I can give and let’s do it once a week versus bi-monthly and let’s do something longer and what not. But maybe more importantly, especially if you don’t know each other terribly well yet, is to really be as awesome as possible about weaknesses.
It’s obviously hard for all of us to feel vulnerable, but I do remember some very candid conversations we had where, for instance, as Bob mentioned, he felt as though he hadn’t done a lot of grant writing at that point and that was something that I was doing quite regularly in my day job at the time. So, he was very quick to ask for assistance with that.
We partnered on a lot of early grants and I think they always turned out better because we worked on them as a team and we would give each other ideas. Those conversations even transpired into the more personal realm where Bob would say, “Gee, our board meetings are at 9:00 on Saturday mornings and I am not great about getting up that early and haven’t had to do that for a long time.” So, guess who the alarm clock became? I would call Bob at, I think it was 7:30 on Saturday mornings when we had a board meeting and the chair’s duties know no bounds, just as the ED’s sometimes.
So, that was one of the things that Bob was really honest about. I was so grateful for it because if I had to be there by myself, well, first of all, I didn’t have a key to the building, but the board meetings would obviously not be the same without the ED there. So, I was very grateful of Bob’s honesty about that.
For me, as we move to the next bullet, the needs sometimes can be interchangeable with weaknesses. I remember telling Bob that I’m a very goal-oriented person. Bob had set out this terrific vision for the organization. He really wanted us to grow and be productive and treat every student that walked in our door like the king of queen and give them everything we could of ourselves.
But I really needed specifics that the board could help with. That’s how I remember we started talking about the organization’s first strategic plan. We had this great vision. There were pieces of it that were starting to come out. I just said, “I feel like I’m not going to be able to do my job well unless we get to the point where we’ve really got some specific goals.”
That became the beginning of what was probably an 18-month process, maybe longer because we first applied for funding for it. Then we again talked very regularly abut communication and even about the roles that we would each play. It’s probably worth saying that all of these pieces, of course, evolved over time.
Even within the couple years that I served as chair, all of these pieces would evolve because at some point Bob became an expert grant writer and that wasn’t an issue anymore and then maybe he would just come to me and say, “This has worked out well. Now I think we can really move on to this next piece that we partner on together.” Clearly, the strategic planning took a lot of time and we would cut out other things to make room for that and then move on to something else. So, it was really about reevaluating these things on a regular basis.
Along the way, because most of you here are chairs and EDs, it seems fitting too to talk about some of the specific things that we would do for each other and do now in our respective roles to support the ongoing nurturing of that relationship. And really, this applies to board shares but also to any rank and file member.
I think anybody can be a model board member, even if you’re very new to board service. Again, the continuing education, in my mind, is one of the things that service board members best. It’s the reason we wrote this book together, so that board members would have an easy reference point. It’s the reason we do a lot of these types of things.
We think it’s really important for board members to realize just how critical it is for themselves to learn what it means to be a board member and then to do the right thing, as much as they know how. And knowing your role, of course, comes with that education, knowing all the things that EDs already know that board members should not intervene in a lot of staff-related activities and all the pieces that take time to learn.
So, as an ED and a leadership team, if you can make it easy for your board to have a decent sense of what they need to know and some of the basic guidelines, that’s always helpful. So, to have resources in-house for new board members can be terrific — suggested webinars, suggested books, suggested community events where board members can get up to speed on their role.
Performance evaluations always make EDs feel good. If it’s not happening in your current organization, I’m sure you know about the ED in town that says, “I have not had an evaluation in seven years,” or whatever it’s been. It’s demoralizing. So, even, again, a rank and file board member can take the reins and get that process moving. It doesn’t have to be the chair.
Those of you who are listening who are not board chairs, if this is not happening in your organization, it makes your ED feel like gold to get a respectful, balanced kind of evaluation, and that next bullet about balanced feedback really is critical. So, the idea of focusing, whether it’s in a formal evaluation or not, focusing on the good and the needs improvement areas is so critical. We all know that from our day jobs.
But it can be, unfortunately boards can tend to really focus on the negative sometimes because it always seems as though time is short and we need to focus on those pieces that are not working well. But there’s nothing like sending a bouquet of flowers to an ED after an event or providing a little bottle of their favorite champagne or whatever it is to just acknowledge a job well done, even a round of applause at a meeting can be just the right thing for an ED’s long hard day.
I’m preaching to the choir with many of you, I know. But again, continuing to learn is critical to everybody. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again because it’s just such, I think, critical for EDs as well as board members. And then for board members in particular, taking yourself out of the equation is critical and just always reminding yourself was the case and the example I gave earlier.
If you’re working with somebody on the staff, let’s say in this case is the ED who is just not your favorite person in the world, but taking yourself out of it and working towards a mission. Keep reminding yourself of those cute kids or those puppies or the people that you’re dealing with in the community who are benefiting from the work you do.
It always takes the board to a higher level, frankly, whether you have a terrific relationship with your other leadership partners or not. So, board members can forget very easily that they are volunteers who are there in service of the ED in large part and helping the ED fulfill that vision that Bob talked about.
Just getting back to our roots as board members and reminding ourselves that this ED works very hard and unless that person is doing something that’s clearly unethical, it’s really worth finding some ways to support that person very regularly.
As a former ED, Bob, anything else you want to add to that list?
Bob: No. I think that’s really good.
Susan: Okay. Well then onto supporting the chair.
Bob: Yeah. I guess from the other side of that, what can the ED do to really support he chair and really, more broadly, the board? As I alluded to before or mentioned before, really being able to communicate a strong vision. I think that’s really critical. I think that’s what excites people and that’s what brings on new board members. That’s what keeps people enthused and engaged.
I think from the chair, like when Susan and I were working together. Having the vision is one thing, but having everyone buying into that vision together and helping to co-create the implementation of it or co-implement it is really an important piece to the effective partnership. Susan and I would really work together in talking about where we were going with the organization. A lot of that happened around budget time. Budget is the way you can actually put the dollars where your vision is going to take you.
I would think that is a really key piece for the executive directors that are on the phone, to really think about how you communicate your vision for the organization to not only the chair but also at board meetings and to all the board members together. And then steering the board’s focus — I think that kind of goes back a little bit — Susan was saying knowing your role as a board member.
The top complaints I get from EDs, and I run my lunch club I’ve been doing for 13 years now here in DC is that board members don’t help with fundraising enough and they don’t know their roles. They’re always kind of stepping into the weeds where they shouldn’t be. But an executive director can really help the board’s focus.
I think, again, it goes back to the vision. Helping the board focus on those big strategic issues that really are important — and those are the really interesting things to talk about anyway. Those are what people like to really engage on and discuss.
So, tapping into that expertise on your board as kind of your kitchen cabinet, so to speak, to really help you as an executive director, figure out what makes the most sense. Again, you’re creating buy-in, but it’s also using that brain trust. I think the ED can really help identify those strategic issues that the board can focus on and help.
I also think that the ED can also help focus on very specific board members and tap into their expertise and help them focus. So, someone for example, if your organization is looking of a new space, let’s just say, for example, and you’re going to buy space, and you have somebody on your board who really knows real estate, the executive director, just like a coach, would call in the player to step out who’s going to go into bat next or whatever.
The executive director really can help orchestrate and pull together teams of experts from your board and again, by tapping into their expertise, they feel they’re able to contribute in a way that’s really meaningful to their organization. Everyone wants to be appreciated and put their talents to use in a way that’s going to help the mission.
As I mentioned before too, to really help direct the leadership pipeline, executive directors, while they don’t ultimately vote on who should be . . . unless you’re a voting member of the board. That’s another whole webinar, I think. But the executive director really should be helping to cultivate that leadership pipeline. A really important role, and I often remind executive directors of this, board members are volunteers and I think Susan was talking about giving praise from the board to the executive director, sending flowers or whatever. But you also have to thank the board members.
I think a lot of executive directors — I know I probably didn’t do as good a job as I should have — really being a cheerleader and supporting the board members and really encouraging them, that’s really important in building a leadership pipeline. People need to know the executive director believes in them, that he or she believes they can step up and they want to be thanked as well. I think that really helps in developing that pipeline.
We also kind of divided and conquered the whole board management. I know there are some organizations where the staff does everything for the board. I guess it depends on the size of your organization. We were very small staffed. Early on we didn’t have a development director.
Susan, I think we had eight or nine meetings a year, right? It wasn’t quite monthly. Is that right? It was pretty often, right? Yeah. So, I always felt like I was preparing for a board meeting and trying to track down committee reports on top of trying to get grants out the door.
Susan and I really devised a way that we could divide and conquer in terms of getting the board packets pulled together, getting them disseminated. That was just as electronic stuff was happening. So, some of it became more electronic and then really working together to co-create the agenda. That’s something the executive director should not do that all by him or herself. It’s not something that the board should just create the agenda and bring it on.
That’s something that should be thoughtfully done. It goes back to that whole point of steering the board’s focus. The agenda really sets that. Both the chair and the executive director should be creating that for every meeting and there should be intention and thought behind that. I think we were really good about doing that together and I played a very important role because, again, I’m there full time and I know what the issues are and I can suggest items for the agenda that might need to be brought to the board’s attention then we would talk about it.
Then we also instituted this continuing development and continuous improvement of the board. The strategic plan was one way, professional development not only for the board but for the organization, but then also thinking about what kinds of tools and knowledge that board members need to effective.
So, we would have periodic little fundraising at the beginning of the meetings, practice talking to a donor. I think we did that a couple of times. Our treasurer would do some basic how to read a financial statement. Those were just kind of peppered throughout the course of the fiscal year. Some people had those skills, but some of them didn’t.
It really is a way to create a mentor relationship on the board. The executive director can really identify, again, areas that he or she needs help that the board is not maybe stepping up as much as they need to and those are really great opportunities for professional development. So, I’ll turn it back over to you, Susan.
Susan: Right. We just wanted to include some of the tools that we use to get all of these pieces. You’ve heard us mention all of these things, but again, to have a succinct mission and vision statement, even if it’s not the formal one always. Some colleagues of mine call it the walking around mission statement, something that board members can diffuse a sentence or so that’s conversational and easy to remember.
Strategic plan, whether that’s very formal and long, a long process or a shortened version, whatever works for your group. Board commitment form, I have seen a lot of your questions and comments about sample forms. There is one in our book. Actually, Steve, if it’s okay with you, we can send a sample if you’re able to email it to the participants today. You can let us know.
Steven: Yeah. We can do that, for sure, definitely.
Susan: Terrific. So, we will send a sample on out to the group. We did include in the book a lot of the tools that we thought were most critical, including individual board member fundraising plans, which take us to a point we didn’t talk a lot about today, but getting to the real nitty-gritty of the kinds of expectations you have and then the expectations the board members want you to have. It’s that kind of agreement, the board commitment form is kind of a governance-level agreement and then the fundraising plan to create other documents that help set expectations there.
So, we’ll get to your other questions in a second, but just again to wrap up, keep in mind the mission for everything, it keeps all of us on track for everything we’re doing for the organization insists upon respectfulness and trust and that’s what keeps all of us going. Bob, any last words?
Bob: No. I just want to thank everybody. There is additional information on our book’s website. I think we have a little bit of time, so if there are any questions, we would love to field a few questions.
Steven: Yeah. We owe you two a thanks. That was an awesome case study. I really enjoyed listening to real things that happened. There’s a lot of advice out there, but it’s kind of refreshing to hear something that actually happens, so thank you both, thanks for taking an hour out of your day to tell the story.
I’ve got a couple questions here. We probably have time for one or two questions. But I definitely encourage people to reach out to both Susan and Bob with additional questions. Arun here was wondering — it looks like they’re asking a lawyer to join their board. If you asked someone who was in a professional service to be on your board, is it a conflict of interest to use those services? Is it okay to use someone’s services who is also on the board? What’s your opinion on that kind of conflict of interest issue there?
Bob: Well, Susan, we had a couple of lawyers on the board that we used. So, I don’t believe it’s necessarily a conflict of interest in general. What’s interesting, I was just at a presentation on Tuesday, and for government lawyers, people that work for the federal government because we’re here in DC, that’s where the question came up, there can be issues with that if you’re in that capacity. It might depend on where this person’s working. That could be more the issue.
I’ve known many organizations, like the example I gave that were going to buy a building and they needed a real estate lawyer and they had one on their board. So, that person really was instrumental in helping to review the documents or craft the documents. Don’t you think that’s generally the case, Susan?
Susan: I agree. I think a lot of lawyers give their time pro bono. So, if you’re talking about paying that lawyer or his or her firm, I think as long as it’s fair market rate and some people want to go to the point where they are doing some due diligence and getting bids or soliciting others’ help to confirm that before they use their firm they’re paying the fair market rate. Obviously, if a board member’s firm was charging you more or there were special favors given, there are conflicts of interest potentially on those kinds of issues.
Steven: Makes sense. Angela here is wondering, “How can you go about formulating board responsibilities?” Maybe she’s never done that before and it’s the first time putting pen to paper writing those down. How do you come up with what you want your actual board to do at the boots to the ground level if you’ve never done that before?
Bob: I have two suggestions. You can use the Internet and do a search on just bylaws. I don’t know what kind of organization you might be able to do a specific search on the kind of organization that you are and pull up their bylaws and typically bylaws will have the listing of the officers and sometimes even the general members, the regular members’ duties and responsibilities. You could do that.
The other way would be the board commitment form would be another way to start, the one that we’ll share with you but there are many on the Internet that you can look at. You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel and that will give you a lot of ideas. Susan, do you have anything else to add?
Susan: No, that’s it. I think just educate yourself about the roles of board members and then take some samples like the one we’ll send you today and make them customize it for your own needs. No two boards are exactly alike, so do what works for you and your group.
Steven: Well, I know we didn’t get to all the questions and we’re just a little bit over 2:00. I want to be respectful to everyone’s time, especially to our guests. So, Bob and Susan, would it be fair to say that you’re willing to take questions over email for the folks we didn’t get to?
Bob: Absolutely. I would love to. I love talking about boards or emailing about them. Absolutely.
Susan: Same here.
Steven: Yeah. Well, reach out to them, obviously very knowledgeable. Susan and Bob, this was really cool. Thanks for doing this. I really enjoyed this one. I hope you get some response from the attendees as well. Thanks so much for being here.
Bob: It was our pleasure.
Susan: Thanks to all of you. Good luck with your boards. I hope that you all take away something that you can implement today.
Steven: Well, do reach out to them. Look for an email from me a little bit later on. We’ll definitely get you that board commitment form as well as the slides and the recording.
I just want to highlight next week’s webinar. We do these webinars just about every week. We’ve got a special Wednesday addition. So, six days from now, not seven. Pamela Grow is our guest. She’s going to talk about gift acknowledgement. This is a pretty rare opportunity to hear form Pamela. She’s a super smart consultant, does not do webinars very often. So, she’s kind of making a special case for us. She’s been a good friend of Bloomerang for years now.
So, check that out. It’s definitely timely if you’re going to be acknowledging a lot of those year-end tips, especially at the end of January. So, check that out. We’ve also got a couple other presentations that you may find interesting on our webinar page.
I’ll say a final thank you. To everyone who joined us, thanks for taking an hour out of your day. Look for an email from me. I hope to see you again real soon on another Bloomerang webinar. So, have a great rest of your day and a great weekend and we’ll talk to you again soon.