How Board Chairs Can Lead with Excellence During a Crisis
Jeff Jowdy will share tips for board chairs to help their nonprofit survive and thrive in turbulent times.
Steven: All right, Jeff, we’re rolling. Is it okay if I go ahead and kick us off officially?
Steven: Cool. Well, welcome, everybody. It’s Thursday. We’re here for a Bloomerang webinar. We usually do webinars on Thursday. We’ve been doing webinars almost every single day so it feels good to be back on our normal schedule here. Thanks to all of you for joining us. I hope you’re doing okay. I hope you’re staying healthy, staying productive. We are here to talk about how board chairs specifically can help out during this very interesting time that we’re living in right now. So thanks for being here. I’m Steven over at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion as always.
And just a couple of quick housekeeping items before we begin. Just want to let you all know that we are recording this session and we’ll be sending out the recording as well as the slides later on this afternoon. So if you have to leave early or maybe you get interrupted or just want to review the content later on, don’t worry. We’ll email all that good stuff to you this afternoon. Just be on the lookout for an email from me in just a couple of hours after we adjourn. But most importantly, I know a bunch of you have already done this but please feel free to chat in any questions or comments throughout the hour. We’re going to try to save some time at the end for Q&A. So don’t be shy. Don’t sit on those hands. We’d love to hear from you. Introduce yourself now if you haven’t already. We’d love to know who you are and where you’re from. You can also do that on Twitter. I’ll keep an eye on the Twitter feed if you want to send us a tweet.
And if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, just want to send an extra special welcome to all you folks. If you’ve never heard of Bloomerang, we are a donor management software provider in addition to doing all of these webinars which we love to do. So if you’re curious about our software, just want to learn more about us, check out our website. You can watch some videos, you can take a tour of the product just for context. That’s just what Bloomerang is all about. Don’t do that right now because one of my favorites is joining us. Jeff, I think this is maybe like your 9th or 10th Bloomerang webinar. You’ve been a stalwart of our series since going back to 2012. How’s it going? You doing okay? You staying healthy?
Jeff: We’re doing great. It’s always a treat to be with you and learn with you and my great friends at Bloomerang. So thanks for having us back.
Steven: Well, the feeling is mutual and you were really gracious in suggesting this topic to us. It’s an important one that I’ve been getting asked a lot, what boards can be doing right now. So you’re going to fill in those gaps for us. I just want to brag on you really quick. If you all don’t know Jeff, check him out over at Lighthouse Counsel. Great resource, great blog, newsletter and just a super awesome guy. He’s super involved in the nonprofit community down around Nashville, Tennessee. He’s at conferences all the time. Super involved in Rotary down there and he’s just one of my go-tos for board governance. And I just love hearing from him. It’s always a treat to have him on the series.
So I am going to pipe down. They don’t want to hear from me. They want to hear from you. So I’m going to stop sharing, let you share your screen, Jeff. And we’ll see if we can get this going. There it goes. I think it’s working. Nice.
Jeff: Great. Hey, well, thank you, Steven, again to all of our participants today. A big thank you. If you don’t know Bloomerang, this is our go-to referral for clients. So great software but to be candid, I think more important, they’re great people that you can really count on. So first and foremost, our thoughts are with everybody at this time and Steven and I were talking before we came live here with the presentation about people that we knew that, you know, have suffered through this whether it be health or economy. So for everybody here, just know that we’re thinking about you and looking forward to having this time beyond this. And it’s also a time where we have a chance to see the very best in what makes America, the world, the nonprofit sector unique.
So this topic, how board chairs can lead with excellence during a crisis, it’s really an adaptation. Originally, we were going to just talk about board chairs. And board chairs are a topic that is, you know, very near and dear to me. We’re conducting some research and writing a book actually, a manual for board chairs. We’ll talk a bit about that. But what we wanted to do today is really help you, you know, think about two things. One, overall, what are some key attributes and skills of nonprofit board chairs. So they certainly are important and valid during all times. And then we have 10 specific tips for how board chairs can really not only help their nonprofits survive which we all want to do but even thrive, you know, during these times.
And I think that important context setter is always that as we’ve been doing some research, a lot of research on boards and had the privilege of . . . over the past year interviewing over 50 leaders from around the world about nonprofit board chairs, just a reminder that, you know, one of the challenges and opportunities that I’ve seen in my career and I think many of you have is, you know, a board chair who . . . she or he was . . . has a successful for profit career, may have served within a for profit board, even been a for profit board chair but the . . . our sectors are different and we know that, you know.
Jim Collins and the, you know, “Good to Great,” the piece that he created, the follow-up on the social sector. One of the things that he addressed and mentioned was how nonprofit governance is really more complicated in its structure than a for-profit. And of course in a for-profit we all know the measure is money, profitability for the shareholders. In the nonprofits it’s social purpose.
So that’s just an important nuance. But we’re really going to look today at what we believe is the most important role in a nonprofit and that is the board chair. And that’s in good times and in bad. And steady leadership from the board chair again in all times will give staff and the board, those you serve, donors needed stability. And we say that it’s the most important role for a nonprofit in many regards but number one is in essence . . . there may be a committee involve . . . but in essence the board chair typically is the supervisor of the CEO of the nonprofit. And nonprofit board work as you all know whether you’re a board chair or a staff member takes time. And it’s like a lot of things in life and in fundraising. You kind of get the return that you invest in it.
A great mentor of mine, Clark Baker who was a master at developing boards, you know, once told me . . . and I think it’s profound, “You get the board you deserve.” So Clark was referring to again the input, the output, the work that is involved. And the board chair is a very, you know, serious role, a high calling, special responsibility. One of my colleagues here at Lighthouse, Harry Chapman who has served on many, many boards and chaired organizations, you know, was sharing that, you know, a lot of times it’s just a popularity contest or by default. And we’ve seen that.
So part of my interest just as another prelude in boards is that at a very young age, I had the opportunity to be a board chair and then to be a CEO and when I was CEO, I had an incredible board chair, a perfect board chair. I was very fortunate. And he challenged me, he pushed me, he supported me, he made me a better CEO. And we’ve all seen in our careers board chairs who have exceled and, you know, frankly board chairs who have done miserably. And I don’t think anybody becomes a board chair and says, “I’m going to do a terrible job.” But many do. And so this is a very important role.
There was a study in 2015 by a think tank, national think tank, the Alliance of Nonprofit Management and they surveyed in 2015 about 635 nonprofit board chairs. And one of the questions they asked was about the preparation that . . . it’s a great study if you want to find that online. The Alliance for Nonprofit Management, 2015. There’s a great PDF you can download. Survey.
But of the 635 nonprofit board chairs that they surveyed, over half . . . it was 51% said they did nothing specific to prepare to become a board chair. So that’s, you know, a bit of a challenge. When you have that kind of result. And again, we’ll share some attributes in a second about board chairs in general context and then talk about some 10 tips. But this is a high calling. It’s the role that really holds the primary trust of the community for the operation of the nonprofit and it’s something that really does and it should take preparation to be successful.
So we did some . . . or are involved in right now our own research here at Lighthouse Counsel on board chairs specifically and we have surveyed to date about 1,400 nonprofit staff and board leaders. About 840 of those that we surveyed to date have served as a board chair and for our great participants today, if you have not taken this survey, we would really appreciate it and maybe Steven can share that link when he sends out some information this afternoon.
But of those 840 out of that 1,400 . . . the 840 that have served, you can see some, you know, similarly, I think, concerning. Over half said they were somewhat prepared. And under half said, you know, very well prepared. So you can see then again, an opportunity. And really this is a dual, you know, responsibility because, you know, part of the role of the CEO and the board chair too is to make sure that the chair, you know, is prepared.
And then when we asked to what extent did you get coaching? Again to those who had served as board chairs. You know, how much help did you get? You can see here again it’s a little challenging that almost half, 47% had no coaching or very little. And then probably as concerning because we all want to be lifelong learners is the small portion who didn’t feel like they needed any. But again this points to an opportunity for us in the nonprofit arena to really lean in and focus and support more our board chairs.
So now I want to just . . . we’re still in this research phase but I wanted to share with you our . . . some of the preliminary findings on the research. So we asked those that . . . this is all through our Lighthouse Counsel’s research. In what areas do the board chairs wish they had received more coaching? Again, board governance, that relationship between the CEO and the board chair. We can do a whole webinar on that. And it’s so important. Strategic planning. Board financial responsibilities. And again, the working relationship between the whole board and the board chair.
Then we were looking at what are the top qualities or attributes of a great board chair and I’ll share that integrity, vision and collaboration by far . . . integrity, vision and collaboration by far were the top by far. And then you can see some other qualities and attributes. Reliability, dedicated passion, decisiveness, wisdom, discernment and really intriguing was networker. And I’ll share that the feedback and the insight that we’re getting that some people perceived their own personalities for a board chair, different leaders. But you can see here the importance of a board chair using, you know, her or his network to enhance the mission of the organization or the nonprofit.
Then one of the questions we asked again and hopefully that you’ll answer this afternoon, the next day or two if you have time. Again, to date based on these 1,400 responses. What is the top advice that you would give for a board chair? Number one, understand your role. So again that points back to the importance of this preparation and training, understanding your role. Be a good listener and communicator. And people are very specific in these two skills and they’re very different as we know. Ask questions and learn, that lifelong learning. We don’t want to be the 4% who didn’t need any coaching. Communicate well with the CEO, that relationship. And then be committed to that organization and have a passion. You know, it’s not being specific to that organization again.
And then some characteristics that folks shared of an underperforming board chair. Not understanding the role which is usually overstepping or under stepping if that’s the proper term, the role. Micromanaging, getting into the operations. Lacking effective leadership skills. Poor communication. Ineffective at presiding over meetings. And we have, I mentioned, conducted over 50 interviews with some incredible dynamic leaders all over the world and this has come up repeatedly. For some very significant boards the lack of some chairs to preside well and run a good meeting. We think that’s basic but it’s not. And then to be afraid of conflict. And certainly that’s an essential step.
I’ll share that . . . just a quick anecdote and we’ll keep moving and start looking at our top 10 recommendations but years ago . . . and this is again part of my interests and our passion for effective board chairs. We had a major donor approach us and he had . . . he and his wife had just given a significant gift to name a facility but he had I would say donor’s remorse. And we’ve heard of buyer’s remorse but he was suffering from donor’s remorse and he said, “Jeff, I’d want to hire Lighthouse to conduct a development analysis. I want to know, you know, how effective are they at fundraising and they can improve a lot.” But he said, “I really want to know from you . . . get a pulse for the CEO.”
And so one of the first things that we did and it set the stage for our work, we interviewed all the board chairs from the past five. Current and past five. Two of whom actually sat on the advisory board of our company. And what we heard was pretty startling. In every case every one of those board chairs said the CEO was incompetent, she just managed, she didn’t perform, she was lazy. And they tried to address the situation and it got to the point of, to be candid, they were afraid of conflict. There was one or two board members who were vocal. And so the issues were never addressed and the organization . . . we presented our report, our recommendation and the CEO . . . not unexpected, disagreed with our findings and about a year later they filed for bankruptcy which validated our findings unfortunately so . . . but that being afraid of conflict.
So also disengaged. So back to the commitment to that organization. The disengagement, doesn’t hold others accountable. Not forward thinking and egotistical. So that’s a quick summary where ongoing research and more questions we’re diving into and we would again love for your insight on this and we’ll ask Steven if he wouldn’t mind sharing this link with you. We’ve got about 1,400 responses, and we are going to be shooting for 2,000. It’ll be one of the more significant if not the most significant study of nonprofit board chairs and we would just [inaudible 00:17:53] a value. But that’s a quick overview of some of our findings to date.
So now I wanted to go ahead and just talk about the top 10 . . . our top 10 tips for board chairs, you know, during these challenging times. What can board chairs be doing to be more successful, to help their organization be more successful?
One of the things that, you know, we’re all aware of is that these are uncharted waters and circumstances are changing daily. You know, hopefully there’ll be some more clarity and Steven and I were talking about that for our lives, for our professions, for our family, for health, for our lives. More clarity in the sense of a return to what’ll be a new normal. It won’t be the old. And this . . . you know, the coronavirus and this epidemic will have a lasting impact on how nonprofits function.
So during these times and they’re certainly challenging nonprofit board chairs can be a beacon of light. They can provide steady leadership to their organization, to the staff, to the board, to donors, to those they serve and really provide some much-needed stability in this time of chaos.
So the first tip that we have is to be sure your board is high functioning. And, you know, a great economy, a booming economy. You know, we always . . . we say in fundraising can hide a lot of sins. It can . . . and then when things get tight, some, you know, poor practices really come to light. And it’s the same with the board work. So the first thing we’d say . . . encourage you is to . . . if you haven’t recently, just take a step back and we all have some extra time. We all are commuting, we’re all . . . you know, have some added opportunity time. So really review every phase of your board engagement program from the role and expectations of a board member to the recruitment, orientation, ongoing education, evaluation of board members, you know, how your board functions whether it be committee structures to what you do at the meetings and how you make those engaging.
But take a look at your board now and use this time to be [inaudible 00:20:33] and if not, make changes. One of the things that we always encourage . . . we work with my of our clients on is that recruitment process and expanding their board and growing boards and this is the time where you can still do that. You can still cultivate, you can still identify, you can still take the proper steps. So it’s not a . . . so it’s the time not only to be sure that those systems and things are [inaudible 00:20:58] and make changes as needed but it’s also a time to keep outreaching to people who would be a great asset to your board. So that’s our first tip.
Our second is know that the buck really stops with you. If you are the board chair and things are going bad, I’ll tell you and many of us have seen this, the spotlight changes and turns and it focuses on you but it is that in good times, you know . . . often we as board chairs and when I served, I can say I didn’t think as much as I should have about my fiduciary responsibilities and accountability that the board chair has because you hold a public trust. And again, the chair is in essence the supervisor of the CEO and therefore accountable, you know, for this public trust and it’s an important one . . . and their legal responsibility.
So the buck does stop with you and in good times, it’s easy not to be thinking about that. But you . . . as a board chair, you should always be cognizant of that, that you have a legal fiduciary responsibility, a public trust for the performance of that organization which starts with your leadership and the supervision of the CEO. And that’s very important for the mindset.
The third is something that I learned early in my career is to ask the right questions. And especially the right follow-up questions because things don’t always seem what they may be. As a parent, you may have experienced that. You might ask a child a question and you may not get the response that you think you should have and three or four follow-up questions later things come to light. But it’s true.
You know, my mentor, Jerry Panas was a master at asking the right questions and not only to cultivate relationships but to size up a situation. And so it’s very important that a board chair be inquisitive and ask the right questions. And certainly, with that close CEO and board chair relationship the board chair in that confidential close setting needs to be asking some tough and probing questions. Not in a board meeting, not a gotcha but they really need to be asking questions and questions that he or she knows others are going to ask, to ask them now and be ahead of the curve. So that whole thoughtful, inquisitive, what are the ramifications, the devil’s advocate sometimes behind closed doors but it’s really essential for that board chair to help that CEO, you know, vet the right questions and especially in times like this because other people are asking those and be sure that you have discernment and the right answers.
Next is to be proactive and adjust your expectations of timing. So this really ties into the whole questions is things are changing at lightning speed and so there’s not a lot of time to . . . in today’s world, to take, you know, even a day sometimes or two or three to make the right decision. So a board chair in his or her role needs to be really proactive and then adjust your expectations. Again, things are moving at lightning speed so we need to move and respond at lightning speed where possible to get out in front of programs and to make decisions and respond fast when things are changing and they’re changing constantly. So be proactive and adjust your expectations.
Next is something that is very important because we’ve kind of gone through a couple of crazy months. Things are still wild but keep meetings scheduled. You want continuity. So if anything, you may want to increase the frequency of meetings, you know, during this crisis but, you know, be sure that you’re . . . for the rest of the year, you’re holding meetings as scheduled. That may be virtual. You may need to double-check your bylaws to make sure you’re in compliance there but just, you know, use this opportunity to still keep your board engaged. Probably have meetings even more frequently but every nonprofit should have a schedule of their board meetings a year out, we would suggest. And that includes the next three fourths of this year. Challenging times. Or half a year. But, you know, we hear so many organizations, “When are we going to hold it? We don’t know when we’re going to do it.” No, keep your schedule and if anything, you can add meetings as needed. And then just a quick . . .
And Steven will appreciate. I’m one of the world’s worst at technology. It’s a miracle I could even click the screen today. So you want to . . . you know, we’ve got Zoom and all these different platforms. So if you’re doing virtual meetings for the first few times, test it, do some coaching for the participants on how they can be engaged and how to use things. You may even frankly do a one-on-one Zoom call with every board member and teach them the platform ahead of time. Add, you know . . . we don’t have the coffee around the table conversation so be sure and add in that time for those board meetings for the board to keep connecting and developing those relationships and, you know, if nothing else, you go around the virtual room and people share how they’re doing and how their families are doing. But just . . . that’s a piece too, that personal connectivity. We can conduct business by Zoom and other platforms but if you’re having a board meeting, you want to build that in to be sure that that takes place with the virtual meeting.
Next is . . . this is kind of . . . like we said, keep your meetings scheduled and if anything, increase . . . would be to communicate more frequently with the board. And this would be from the board chair again and need to be coordinated with the messages of course that the CEO would send.
But the board chair really should also be reaching out on a personal basis to each of the board members to be sure they’re okay, to gauge how they’re enduring. And we’d hope the CEO would be as well but both those calls and conversations would be welcomed by board members. One of the things with this challenging time the board chair especially can do on these calls would be as you gauge where . . . how individuals are impacted by this crisis would be to . . . most organizations are having cash opportunities or flow opportunities and they . . . so you may want to ask board members to frontload some giving and that’s something that the board chair can certainly do, you know, most effectively. So again, we recommend that the board chairs reach out to, you know . . . every month to each of the board members and this can be a quick call or even a text and at times when needed, a lengthier conversation.
Our seventh tip is to increase the visibility of the board chair. You know, one of the things that struck me and I think many of us saw a few weeks ago . . . you know, the Queen of England had a message of comfort for the people of her nation and the United Kingdom and it really reminded me at least of those old wartime, you know, messages. And the response from that was really overwhelmingly positive. So you as board chair or your board chair . . . really, you have that official fiduciary responsibility but I’d also suggest . . . and think about this, that in a way that you are a figurehead, you are to many larger than life. And I’d even suggest that you are the king or queen of that nonprofit and have that widespread, you know, respect and admiration. So we’d encourage you again to increase your visibility.
One of the things that we’re doing with all of our clients is getting the CEOs to be doing some videos, donor videos, segmented videos, board videos on a regular basis. And this is also something where the board chair should be doing, we would recommend, a monthly video to . . . just again, to help set the tone. So increasing the visibility of the board chair is important at giving comfort and direction and leadership and supporting the CEO.
Next would be to be consistent, real and positive. If you think about sort of that positivity, when the Queen gave her message, it wasn’t about tactics. I don’t think she talked about social distancing or wiping down surfaces, you know, wearing a mask, you know, or the sneeze etiquette and that may be something that the board . . . the CEO rather might be covering in some messaging. But really one of the things that a board chair can do is they can serve to elevate the conversation, the narrative and keep it at that high level, that positive level, that long-term vision. We will endure, you know, and be positive and build confidence. Confidence. You know, be candid. Don’t be Pollyanna but to build confidence. And that is very important and that whole style of messaging and outreach and how you engage and interact as board chair sets the stage for the organization.
And then ninth is to ensure a strategic approach. And we all know that good governance requires the board to be strategic, not operational. But you also need to take this time to say, “What policies are in place for our organization for times like these?” And you might think, “Well, it’s too late.” Well, it’s not too late because there will be another crisis unfortunately. There will be another challenging time. And so this is the opportunity to take a step back and forward and to say, you know, what kind of policies do we need in place at a strategic level to be sure we are going to endure the next time.
Now one of the things that’s pretty familiar, accepted nonprofit best practice is to have, you know, hopefully three months, ideally six months, longer in operational cash reserves plus an endowment. And we all can see how the organizations that have those right now are certainly fairing a lot better than others and it’s a wakeup call, you know, for all of us in this arena. So the board chair needs to be probing and ensuring that these things are in place and not just in a time of crisis.
One of the things that’d be also appropriate would be for the board chair to be, in those conversations with the CEO, again not getting into operations but challenging her or him to be sure that they’re conducting, you know, SWOT analysis, to have contingency plans for various scenarios. Getting the right indicators to the board, maybe a new dashboard, a special dashboard of some kind, key indicators to the board on a regular basis during this time of opportunity and challenge.
And then once piece too is that certainly boards need to remain strategic but are there some special circumstances where . . . and this is a question. Not saying do it. But where you need to maybe rebalance that. For an example, if you are working on . . . we have a client that was working on the . . . and they got and several of our clients fortunately . . . we were not involved but they got the PPP loans from the SBA. We had one client that their board got involved in a positive way. It was really operational and tactical but if the board hadn’t gotten involved, they probably wouldn’t have gotten the funds in that first round. So be situational in saying, “Are there times in this crisis that we might want to rebalance that in some very specific areas?” But be clear that it’s specific and it’s not long-term. This is special circumstances.
And then as the chair, your job always is to ensure that the board takes that strategic approach. And now in this crisis, you might have board members with more time on their hands. They’re thinking more. And they may be eager to assist in the management when again, that’s not the appropriate role. So just a), be sure you have that overall policy, b), look at other areas that now we have more expertise, that can help with short-term with this crisis situation and as we look at policies and procedures that might be needed. And then three, this long-term. Be sure you, as the board chair are guarding that strategic approach in the board as a whole.
And then finally, guard the culture. So the board chair really does set the tone for the organization and I would suggest even more than the CEO. You know, a smart president of a nonprofit is looking constantly at the board chair for leads. And so the board chair should emulate the values of your nonprofit, of the organization and really model the highest level of integrity, being that moral center for the organization, you know, in good times and in bad. And the behavior day to day through messaging, through interactions, through phone calls with different stakeholders really makes a big difference.
So that’s a quick overview of our 10 tips. I look forward to seeing what questions or comments that you may have. This time, you know, will pass and our hope is that your nonprofit will be stronger. We found in the last recession was that organizations that did the right things and survived, they met their goals, they did fine. This is certainly uncharted waters but the board chair is a), we believe the most important again role in a nonprofit. But we also believe that too often it’s the most underutilized position. And whether you’re a board chair, a future board chair, a board member, CEO, nonprofit leader, this is the time to really take advantage of the leadership of your board chair in many special ways to strengthen your nonprofit on so many levels. And we really haven’t even touched on the magic that the board chair can have in outreach to donors in this challenging time. So just a great resource and really with the right leadership of the board chair, your nonprofit can not only survive but thrive during these challenging times. So look forward to hearing some of your great questions.
Steven: Thanks, Jeff. That was awesome. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. I was just sitting here nodding along as you were going through those things. And I will send out that survey. Hopefully, you can get some more contributions to that data because that’s a valuable one for sure. We do have some questions. If you haven’t asked a question already, please do so because we’ve got some time here. Probably about 15 minutes for questions which I love. Jeff, is it okay if I start off with my own?
Jeff: Please, please.
Steven: It’s my webinar series so I’m going to pull rank, I guess. But don’t worry. We’ll get to all the other questions. As I was sitting here listening, I just kept thinking, “Boy, I wonder what role the orientation can play in maybe heading some of these things off?” And any tips for maybe getting it started off on the right foot in terms of the orientation of the board members?
Jeff: Yeah. And really, I’d say even the board chair, again, because that’s a special role and you saw those statistics and it’s pretty alarming when . . . whether the earlier research or ours about the preparation. The orientation is so important and it’s interesting because one of the things I’d . . . we said, “Look at that overall, you know, board engagement process and how that plays out.” And often, you know, we almost always . . . whether . . . no matter what our service, you know, fundraising or whatever, the board’s so integral and we end up asking . . . and especially they’re all in fundraising so we . . . well, you know, how do you orient the board. And, you know, I hate to say it but more often than not you cringe when you see, you know, what someone’s doing or, “Oh, we haven’t upgraded that in 10 years or we don’t really do that anymore and we’ve been meaning to do that.”
And, you know, it’s different for every organization. Again, I just reinforce that the board chair . . . you know, it’s our focus to anyone . . . for the board as a whole, it’s really important that you do that orientation and we encourage if you haven’t done it in a while to engage the whole board and do it again. You know, one of the challenges with us all, and I’m guilty, very guilty, you know, we don’t pay attention. You know, how many of you . . . and we have our kids, our colleague . . . oh, I told you that yesterday or you asked me that . . . you know what I mean? You know, so reinforcement’s good. Donor communication reinforcement’s essential, right. And so with board behavior, that reinforcement . . . not only the education but the modeling . . . we talk about the board chair, you know, how she or he behaves and what they do, you know, is essential. So you want to have something, an orientation that’s, you know, engaging, informative. You can leave some homework along the way.
One of the things that we encourage you is, you know, give them enough information but not too much and that’s kind of vague. And one of the things that we found that’s essential is to send a board member the last year or two minutes because what happened is . . . happens too often if you don’t do that, you’ve got a board member that drops into a situation where she or he doesn’t understand the context or the history. And by reading minutes you can kind of get a sense for where things are and what’s happened. If I was asked to serve on a board frankly, I would ask to see the minutes and sometimes I might flee.
Jeff: You know, and so that . . . not only that formal engagement but then at every board meeting can you have a tip on, you know, on more engagement, on . . . certainly on cultivation and ongoing, so it’s so essential.
You know, and some . . . you know, in the ideal world, many boards would bring on a class every year and many do. So that’s really an opportunity. You have a rhythm and a schedule. You know, oftentimes we’re dealing with boards that really need just strategically jumpstart. They don’t . . . we don’t them to wait a year or six months even to . . . because of a campaign spending and they don’t have the right board or some of the right people. So but it’d be . . . it’s nice when you can get that rhythm as an annual class and people can have camaraderie and they know more when they rotate on and off and things of that nature.
But just, you know, take a step back and kind of look at it with fresh eyes and, you know, making sure it’s engaging, informative and it’s not bad to scare people. I mean, that whole fiduciary role is serious and people . . . you know, it’s . . . we gloss over it. And until the nonprofit’s in financial trouble and the media’s calling the board chair and they’re like, “Oh, crap. Why are they calling me?” You know, because you hold the public trust and . . . yeah.
Steven: Speaking of fiduciary responsibilities, a question here from an attendee. I’ll leave folks anonymous just in case. What would you suggest to a board chair where the rest of the board isn’t contributing financially? What’s sort of your take on maybe give and get policies or board giving in general? It seems like it should be a 100%, right? Or what do you think?
Jeff: Yeah. And we’re probably different than some but mine is based on . . . you know, we work with a lot of different nonprofits from smaller to large and so we believe that every board member . . . and there’ll be people who disagree obviously but this is based on our experience and our research. Every board member should give at a leadership level for your organization.
Jeff: And again back to, you know, Jerry Panas taught me that if you don’t, you’re missing. Well, we need an attorney or we need someone with this skill.
Steven: Right, when you have an accountant to monitor. Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: You’re shortchanging your organization if you don’t think you can find someone with that skill and who’s able to give, you know . . . and what is that leadership gift? Is it 500, a 1,000, 5,000, 10,000? Oh, we need grassroots representation. Well, unless you’re like a public health charity or you have some other requirement for constituents under your board, no, you don’t need . . . you need board members who can make good decisions. Do you need the pulse of some constituencies? Yes. Right?
Jeff: So you might have an advisory group and do research but do you need those people around the table necessarily? And again, everybody’s different. And then I’ll just share that I don’t like the term give or get.
Jeff: I have found 20 years ago I would’ve said, “Every board member has to ask, be able to ask for a gift, right.” I don’t feel that way anymore, you know. I’ve learned. Every board member has to be able and willing to cultivate a few people within his or her sphere of influence, period. Right? If our CEO or our chief development officer can’t come alongside you and ask for the gift, if you don’t feel comfortable, you know . . . but you’ve got to be able to identify and cultivate. And some are going to ask, you know, but it’s a challenge. Some people don’t feel comfortable.
I did a blog a couple of years ago. We were working with a client and they had a campaign chair who was beloved and very generous and she hated asking for gifts. And about midway through the campaign she started loving it and I wrote a blog about her and I was so embarrassed because the next committee meeting, I had no idea that she was even reading publications, you know, [wasn’t 00:45:12] in the field. She was a wonderful lady and her husband had some great wealth and she’s like, “You wrote about me, didn’t you?” And I was like, you know . . .
So, you know, but you’ve got to . . . you can’t walk in and expect your board members to be comfortable asking for money. The data doesn’t reinforce it, right. I always look at data. If the data says people don’t feel comfortable asking for money, then why are you going to make them?
Jeff: Right. Yeah. The CEO . . .
Steven: And lots of data is showing they’re good people to thank donors and steward [inaudible 00:45:44].
Jeff: Exactly. Exactly. And you start with things like that and yeah. So but if they can bring . . . and so again instead of that give or get because . . . say if you have a . . . we’ve got a . . . well, I won’t say that. Make it where it’s not specific. But if you had 5,000 or 10,000, you know, give or get and you’re giving 500 and you’re getting 10,000, you know what happens is too often that’s the ceiling. They’re thinking small. I just got to get the 10,000.
Jeff: Or I’ve seen boards where you have a give or get of 10,000 and you’ve got 4 board members giving 10,000 a year. Why? Because that’s the give or get and they’re not coached and don’t understand about relationships. When those same board members are giving 50,000 and a 100,000 to other groups.
Jeff: But we’ve got a give or get for 10 so that’s what we’re getting.
Steven: That’s where they’ll stop at. Right.
Jeff: Yeah. So I just encourage . . . you know, from the board perspective it’s all about relationships and you know that, Steven, and your software reinforces that. You know, so let the board do what they do well. Dozens of times a year I’ll ask a board in different settings, “How many of you like fundraising?” Never have more than 20% . . . usually about 10% of the hands go up.
Jeff: I mean, and so we’re going to all of a sudden try and make them do something that they don’t want to do. I don’t think that works [inaudible 00:47:13].
Steven: Yeah. I agree. I just had a question come in on this topic. What kind of language do you suggest? You said, I think it was a leadership gift or are there any other sort of key phrases that you think folks should be saying?
Jeff: I think the leadership gift should be tied to an amount because you want it to be clear, right.
Jeff: And it needs to be appropriate for your organization. If you’re a grassroots startup and it’s a $100 a year, right. I mean, you know, 500. I mean, it’s going to evolve as you grow and who are you and what are your needs, right. So that’s very, you know, fluid. I’d make sure that people understand it’s a minimum. I’d always make sure because you might have people on your board giving a 1,000 and giving a 100 if 1,000’s a minimum but you need the language and always to understand that some people are more blessed in life financially than others and we ask for you all to, you know, to make this a philanthropic priority. Like one of your top three or five at least but if not three, you know, philanthropic priorities. That helps them set the bar.
Jeff: And then one of the things that, you know . . . I’m serving on three boards and I give to all of them monthly. I can’t afford to make a board gift that those organizations need and that I think they should. Then about half have expectations and a half don’t but I can’t do that at . . . I’ll forget at the end of the year so I just got it set up on the, you know, debit and I can do, you know, X dollars a month for 12 months and it doesn’t hurt.
Steven: Did they suggest that to you or was that you being proactive?
Jeff: No, no, too often not, unfortunately.
Steven: But they should, it seems like.
Jeff: They should and that’s something too is . . . and, you know, again, your software is set up for so many great things but, you know, people say monthly giving. Well, we’ve been talking about monthly giving before it was popular.
Jeff: Because anybody . . . and if you’re asking for any kind of gift, you need to be flexible unless you have a crisis on when you receive it, right.
Jeff: And if you are, you’re going to maximize your giving. So, yeah, with your board, I recommend you approach them at the end of your last fiscal year for the next fiscal year. Hopefully . . . we talked earlier about events and hopefully you don’t have 20 events and they’re dizzy because they don’t know what they should be giving to. You know, ask them for one gift for the year and if you have an event and go ahead and include it then. And if their sponsorships or whatever but have that conversation with them once and then make it easy on them so they can fulfil it over the next year if needed.
Steven: Yeah. Speaking of being in crisis, do you think this is a good time potentially if you don’t have a 100% board giving to bring up the issue if you are going through a tough time right now, or is that maybe too shrewd or maybe not the best situation to bring up the topic?
Jeff: Well, I would bring it up. I think we all . . . you know, there’s always special circumstances.
Jeff: So if someone is going through a hardship whether it be the health, you know, with the virus or financial then I would be giving them grace but otherwise, yes. I would absolutely bring it up. And, you know, many . . . the interesting thing is, you know . . . I mean, the market’s . . . unemployment’s devastating. The market’s down but still if you told me 10 years ago the market would be where it is now, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Steven: Right. With the other numbers, yeah.
Jeff: A lot of high net worth people are really not going to be worrying too . . . I mean, you know what I’m saying. They are but not. And the tax law was advantageous to them and things of that nature. So anyway, but . . . I’m sorry. What was your . . . sorry, I got on my . . .
Steven: I think you answered it. I think you said it’s a good time to ask.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. So absolutely, yeah. And I would be asking them and asking to frontload it if you can. Yep. And I’m sorry. I was getting to the fact that foundations usually give . . . offer two or three, you know, past year average of their asset . . . of their income, right. So they haven’t been hit by this situation yet and if the economy recovers like we all hope, they may not be hit substantially.
So the point there was what do most foundations ask you when you’re making a grant application? They want to know who’s on your board and do they all give . . .
Steven: How are they giving?
Jeff: . . . sometimes even at what level. So that would be as you look to shore up financial support from beyond the board. I would always use that leverage, it is genuine, is we got to report to these folks about our board giving. And so . . . but again, I would give grace if grace is needed.
Steven: Sure. Couple of people asking about board retreats. You touched on this a little bit but what . . . is that a yearly thing? Is that always absolutely necessary? What should the chair do? What do you think about retreats?
Jeff: Yeah. Well, I think it’s really important every year for the board to have several opportunities to get to know each other. And that may be dinners or receptions. I think it’s important for their partners and spouses and families to get to know each other, right. We do a lot of strategic planning. And we don’t do planning retreats. Now a board retreat might be different. But I have never met anybody and maybe someone’s going to say that they’re this person who enjoys giving up a full day or a weekend to go away usually without the benefit of outside data and you suffer from group think and after the second or third hour you just want to get out of there and get home or get to the office or the golf course or have a drink.
Jeff: So I’m not . . . you know, again to be candid and based on experience, a bit fan of a board retreat unless there’s a real clear purpose and what is it you’re going to achieve and how can you do it during the year and especially for planning. Please don’t do it.
Jeff: So what, you know, what are the goals? What are you going to achieve and how are you going to do it? And if you need a retreat, then I’d do it but if it involves, you know, planning and goal setting, I’m just not sure that’s the right time because I don’t find people after about two or three hours or something like to make good decisions. They want to get out of there.
Steven: Yep. Well, if you’re the contrarian in the group and you like that, let us know because we still love you anyway. It’s okay. A few folks asking about documentation, job descriptions and things like that. Important, required? What do you think?
Jeff: Oh, essential. Yep, yep, both. I’m not big on . . . you know, so many people are big on signing. You know, well, we’ve got to have it signed and I was board chair of a group and we had such a cumbersome process and we changed it. I don’t know anybody that’s joined a board that wanted to do a bad job.
Jeff: I know a lot of people who will sign commitments and never fulfil them. And it just seems to me to be awful legalistic and I think there are better ways to achieve what you want but yes. You need a description and . . . but I’ve . . . you can’t show me . . . and again, everything we do in our work whether it’s planning or fundraising or board work is we’ll do research and based on data, I don’t know anybody that can give me any data that says that because the board asked people to sign this agreement, they did better than others.
Steven: Right. Yeah. Well, if you don’t have job descriptions, I’ve got a few on our website, some templates. So if folks want those, just email me and I’ll send them over.
Steven: This might be a good question to end on since we’re almost to 3:00 o’clock. You touched on this a little bit, Jeff, but someone just asked about it explicitly. Term limits for board members. I think you mentioned maybe having new members always coming on every year. I’m a big term limit fan. I have a feeling you are too but what . . . can you maybe talk about the need for those and what that time frame looks like?
Jeff: It’s really essential and . . . let me back up real quick for the board chair piece. Board chairs should have term limits. And in the ideal structure, you really need your board chair to be picked several years in advance. I’m talking about overall term limits but you need someone serving as a chair elect or vicechair who becomes chair who is grooming and training for the job. You need immediate past chair. Well, then you have three leaders who might cover a decade of knowledge and passion for the organization who are still engaged for that continuity.
Jeff: Right. Because your CEO, let’s face it, is going to . . . if you’re in higher ed, your president leaves every three or four years. I mean, and you can look at other data. So, you know, you want that continuity. But board terms are very important. Board chair terms are important. I know nonprofits and some higher ed institutions that the board chair serves 10, 15, 20 years. But yeah. I like that expression.
And one of the things is you’re doing . . . you’re really violating your fiduciary responsibility because you get too close to the CEO. I mean, you are still the supervisor and at the end of the day you’ve got to ask tough questions and we don’t have time enough for me to share the litany of organizations where the board chair’s been asleep at the wheel and the nonprofit woke up in financial trouble, woke up, you know, in quotes. And part of that is they get cozy.
Jeff: And that’s not casting stones at anybody. It’s just not a good practice. And so for the overall board, yes, have term limits. Usually what we’d recommend would be a two- or three-year term that can be renewed. And then you roll off for a year. We’re also fans . . . if someone is not doing their job on the board, don’t wait for two or three years to let them roll off. Address it now. And again, give them grace. If there’s a financial, a health, whatever it is situation, we all need that in life, right. But if someone is capable, then they serve for a year and they’re not coming to meetings, they’re not giving, why would you wait? Your cause and mission are so important. You should have a list of 20 people that you’re cultivating to take that place. And if someone’s not fulfilling their role, unless there’s an opportunity to give them grace, then you’re penalizing the people you serve by allowing that person to serve on the board.
Steven: Couldn’t have said it better myself. That may be a good way to end it. We’re almost out of time. Jeff, how can people get a hold of you? We’ll send out that survey and anything else you want, obviously, but how can folks reach out to you?
Jeff: Yeah. Feel free to email me at [email protected], of course C-O-U-N-S-E-L, .com and I’m on LinkedIn so I would love to have you connect there. Would love for you to follow Lighthouse Counsel on Twitter or to like our page on Facebook. I would love to hear from you with any questions at all and we just are grateful for . . . first and foremost, for Steven and the great team at Bloomerang and to all of our friends today who joined us. Thank you.
Steven: Oh, we owe you thanks for taking the time and also just offering this to us. So it was really generous. It was, you know, very recent offer to do this for us and I love the timeliness of the topic. So thank you and definitely reach out to Jeff. Take him up on those offers because he’s obviously a wealth of knowledge. And he’s a great guy. I know . . . I hope we get to give each other a big hug soon, Jeff, because we normally get to a couple of times a year but it’s good to see you and hear your voice at least virtually. So thanks for doing this.
Jeff: Absolutely. Thanks, Steven.
Steven: We’ve got some webinars coming up next week. I think we did . . . this was our fourth webinar this week, Jeff. You ended it on a high note. I’ve been looking forward to this one. We’ve got a few next week too. Dr. Renee Rubin Ross, one of my favorites is going to talk about how to facilitate good virtual meetings. It seems like everyone’s saying, “Do virtual meetings.” And you probably are already. I know I am. But she’s going to break down how to make those meetings not just effective but inclusive. They have a tendency to not be inclusive. Maybe you’ve already experienced that. So she’s awesome. That’s next week on the 28th at 1:00 p.m. but just check on our webinar page. We’ve got lots of other sessions coming up. Lots scheduled in May already too and hopefully we’ll see you again on another webinar.
So we’ll call the day there. Like I said, I’ll email you all the good stuff. The slides, the recording, all those goodies and hopefully we’ll see you again next week. So have a good rest of your Thursday. Have a safe weekend. Stay healthy. I’m thinking about all of you. And hopefully we’ll talk to you again soon. Bye now.