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The Top 10 Reasons You Should NOT Serve on a Nonprofit Board

Nonprofit Board service is a serious privilege and honor – it shouldn’t be taken lightly.  When you decide to serve on a Board of Directors please consider your motivating driving force.  Ask yourself, “Why am I serving on this Board?” “Why is this worth my time, talent, and treasure?”  “Why am I willing to make this a priority in my life?”   Hopefully your answers have something to with service beyond self, a noble worthy cause, or greater common good.

Over the years we’ve discovered some other reasons that people serve on Boards – reasons that often result in turmoil, dysfunction, and unhealthy conflict for the individual Board member and the Board as a body.   We consider these the Top 10 Reasons NOT to serve on a Nonprofit Board:

  1. Because the Executive Director is my friend.
  2. Because I feel sorry for their clients.
  3. Because I don’t have any power in any other area of my life and I need a place to exert my influence.
  4. Because my ego needs some stroking.
  5. My resume needs updating.
  6. Because I used to work here as an employee and now I’m coming back as a Board member to repay the Executive Director for all the mess he put me through.
  7. Because my family member needs the services provided and I want to make sure I’m in position to steer resources their way.
  8. Because I’m the founder of the organization and I have to ensure they keep doing it the way I’ve always done it.
  9. Because it’s a charity and their expectations won’t be that demanding on me.
  10. Because we get to go on annual retreats to some really nice places.

 

There are many inspiring and noteworthy reasons for Board service.  Spend some time self-reflecting and ask yourself – “Why am I really here?”  – The answer will usually explain our actions or lack thereof.   Nonprofits need motivated, engaged, committed Board members who serve for selfless reasons, not selfish.  Serve for the right reasons and your service will make a difference.

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What do CEO’s Expect from Nonprofit Board Members???

Recently we facilitated a conversation on Great Governance.  Nothing unusual about the topic, but there was something unusual about the audience.  The audience wasn’t filled with Board members.  It was filled with Executive Directors, CEO’s, or other Executive Management team members of nonprofits.

One the questions we explored centered on their definition of Great Governance and how that definition shaped what they expect from their Board members.  Here are a few of their responses:

What are some characteristics of Great Governance? How does this shape what you expect from your Board?
Accountability We expect Board members to be accountable for what they say they’re going to do.Uphold their own standards and hold each other accountable.

Also hold me accountable as well.  How can they hold me accountable if they won’t even complete my annual evaluation?

 

Stewardship They’re stewards of the public’s resources.I expect them to honor that stewardship and take their jobs seriously.

 

Engagement Don’t just attend meetings.Be engaged and participate. Provide feedback and input.

Question the status quo.

 

Financial Support Give at a sacrificial level.Get others to give. Lead the way and pave the path for others to give.

 

Advocate Speak for those that don’t have a “voice”.Promote and advance the message and cause of the agency in all of their circles of influence.

 

What Great Governance characteristics would you add to this list?  Remember Great Governance is evident by the performance of the Board.  Here are some questions for you and your Board to consider:

  1. How do we define performance for individual board members?
  2. How do we define performance for the Board collectively?
  3. Are we (individually and collectively) performing at a Great Governance level?
  4. What will we do to ensure we’re continually improving our performance?

Hope this helps improve the performance for you and your Board.

 

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Why Do You Serve on this Board?

“I believe in the mission.”

“I’ll do anything for the kids.”

“I love kids.” (multiple Board members stated this)

“I’m an advocate for children.”

“I want to learn how I can better help children.”

“I want to provide information for families in the community.”

“I just want to help.”

Imagine a nonprofit Board of Directors (Governing Board Members) that provide the above responses when asked the question, “What’s your motivation for serving on this Board?”

What wonderful and heart-warming responses – no one can argue or dispute that these motivations aren’t noble and worthy – surely they are.   There’s only one problem, I’m not sure if these self-proclaimed noble and worthy motivations are enough.

Now, imagine this is a Board that has an expectation of raising money, attending events, and being advocates for the organization.  The vast majority are not fulfilling the minimum expectations.  So what does this really mean about their motivations??

  • I believe in the mission, but not enough to raise money to support it.
  • I’ll do anything for the kids except attend events and serve as a “voice” for the “voiceless”.
  • I just want to help, as long as it’s in my comfort zone.
  • I want to learn how I can better help children, as long as helping them doesn’t include work on my behalf.

Of course I’m being facetious because I, nor you, can speak to another person’s motivation.  I believe they care and I believe they’re concerned.   I can only observe their actions, and that causes me to question their commitment.  So my advice to this and all the other imaginary Boards that may have this challenge is simply this, “Your displayed actions speak louder than your proclaimed motivations.”  Board service requires more than talking the talk – we have to walk the walk.  Here’s a truism regarding “real” Board service:  Some care enough to talk about it, some are concerned enough to think about it, but few are committed enough to do it.  We need you to do it.  Why do you serve on this Board????

 

 

 

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Undermining The Chair’s Authority

Attention Board Chairs, want to undermine and subvert your own power and authority? Just do these things:

1. Do your best to convince your board to postpone and avoid every decision that comes their way. Who needs to make a decision anyway, it’s not like we’re “in business”.

2. Have meetings before the meeting with certain board members to “pit” them against each other. This will ensure there’s a healthy level of transparency & trust.

3. When Board members aren’t fulfilling their roles, responsibilities, and expectations, have the CEO contact them and “get them in line”.  Why should you take the time to reach out to the Board members??  It’s not like you should be keeping your finger on their pulse.

4. When Board members quit or resign forbid remaining board members from having any contact with the exiles. And definitely resist the temptation to conduct some type of exit interview – you don’t want to take the chance of gathering some useful information.

5. Remind your CEO that she works for you, not the entire board.

6. Never, ever, under any circumstances, should you have any contact with your CEO outside of the normal Board meeting. There’s enough time 5 minutes before the meeting to get you caught up on any relevant issues.

7. Allow your CEO to develop the agenda for the meeting absent your input, afterall; it’s the CEO’s meeting anyway, isn’t it?

8. Refuse to listen to anyone that knows better.

9. When board members  are uncertain or concerned, reinforce their uncertainty by agreeing with their fears and reminding them that it’s always been this way and will always be this way.

10. Always speak in the past tense, focus on yesterday and talk about the good ol’ days.  We’ll always have time to talk about tomorrow, but yesterday is gone forever, let’s do our best to keep it alive.

OK, seriously, my legal counsel is about to make me delete all of this If I don’t offer some type of disclaimer.

I’m joking and being sarcastic – this is not real advice – please don’t do these things.

So why did I take this sarcastic approach?? Because, unfortunately, people still do these things after being told not to do them.  So this is my attempt at reverse psychology?  Seriously, don’t make these mistakes.

Be the best Board Chair your ABLE to be.

 

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Why Am I on this Board?

I’ve heard this question more than once during my career. It’s the equivelant of waking up next to your spouse and asking, “Why did we get married?” Needless to say, not the morning greeting any of us want.

Well to prevent you from waking up during a Board meeting in the future and asking, “Why am I on this Board?”, we’ve discovered 4 simple questions to ask before you commit to the Board.

1. Why do you want me? Your seeking their motivation for seeking you. Discover your unique quality or characteristic that attracted them to you in the first place.
2. What role do you want me to play? This is similar to a position on the football field – the quarterback and wide receiver are on the same team, but they have two very distinct roles. Confusion is reduced when you know what role you’re playing before the game starts. For our purposes today, we’re going to say all board members assume the role of governing and within the role of governing there are some common positions, including Chair, Treasurer, and Secretary (NOTE: All Board members assume a governing role, but ALL Board members are not fit to be the Chair, Treasurer, or Secretary – guess I’ll write about that one another time.) Now back to the business at hand, some other roles we’ve seen board members asked to play include:

Advocate

Governance Expert

Fundraiser

Image/Face of the Board

Special Liaison

Community Connector

Critical Thinker/Questioner
3. What are my responsibilities**? We consider these the duties associated with being a board member in general, and the duties associated with any specific role you will play. Using our football example – the quarterback and wide receiver are both responsible for memorizing the plays, however; the quarterback is responsible for calling the play and making a good decision on where to throw the ball, the wide receiver is responsible for running his route and catching the ball if it comes to them. The key is they both rely on the other to fulfill their responsibilities. This applies to the Board – members rely on each other to fulfill their individual and collective responsibilities because if one board member “drops the ball” the play is over for the entire team.
4. What expectations do you have of me? This is the result of the Board member fulfilling their responsibilities. The expectation may be a certain amount of money raised, a certain number of colleagues introduced to the organization, attendance at events, etc…. The expectation is the desired result. One reason many people struggle with board service is there aren’t clear expectations, up-front, regarding what the Board and organization expects from each member. So here’s my last football analogy – the quarterback is expected to be able to throw the ball, the wide receiver is expected to be able to catch the ball, the lineman is expected to be able to protect the quarterback, and so on, and so on. They can’t just have the title of the role, they must meet the expectation associated with it. Just like sports, many fail at board service because they wanted the role, but couldn’t handle the responsibilities and expectations that come along with it.

Remember, a quarterback that can’t throw won’t keep his job for long. A receiver that can’t catch won’t keep his job for long and lineman that can’t block won’t keep his job for long. Why??? Because they’re not meeting the expectations of the responsibilities associated with their role. Ask yourself, Am I able to meet the expectations of the responsibilities associated with my role on this Board? If not, then why am I on this Board???

**For a list of sector accepted responsibilities see BoardSource’s 10 Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards.

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Why Does the Board have to Fundraise?

The majority of Independent Sector organizations have a need for their boards to fundraise .  This is why you see an abundance of Board fundraising trainings, tools, and efforts throughout the sector.  However, there’s something else we still see – many boards and/or board members that don’t, won’t or can’t fundraise.

For those Boards and Board members that struggle with the idea of fundraising or still don’t understand “why” we have to fundraise, consider this:

  1. Funders Expect It: The overwhelming majority of grant applications from corporate, foundation  and even government funders ask a similar question, “What percentage of your board financial contributes to the organization?”  Why do they ask this question?  Simply put, they’re not as close to the organization as the board is – and if the board won’t financially support the organization why should they?  I can’t overstate how impressive it is to a funder when you can claim 100% of our board financially contributes to the organization.  As a matter of fact I know of a few organizations that can claim 100% financial participation from the Board and staff. Wow!!!
  2. Increases your Credibility & Confidence during the Ask: How can you ask others to do what you don’t do?  Imagine approaching a friend or colleague to seek their financial support for the organization.  They look you in the eye and say, “Great, I’d love to support the organization.  By the way, did you give? “ If you can’t answer this question with a resounding confident yes,  you just lost credibility.
  3. Increases your Sense of Ownership: We are more likely to pay attention and care for those things that we own versus those things we don’t own.  Making financial contribution increases your sense of ownership and commitment.  When I was a kid, the phrase “put your money where your mouth is” was very popular.  In other words if you believed in something enough you’d put your money up.  Board members need to “put their money where their heart is”.  If you’re enthusiastic and believe in the cause this will come easy for you.

Finally, there are two ways we’ve seen the expectation of Board member financial support communicated:

  1. A specific annual amount is determined by the Board and agreed upon when board service begins. (i.e. Board members will contribute $2,500 annually..)
  2. The  specific amount is determined by the individual.  (i.e. Board members will contribute a financial amount annually commensurate with their ability.)

Bottom Line: Effective, high-performing boards don’t view fundraising as an obstacle, they view it as an opportunity – an opportunity to advance the mission that they committed to serve.

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Don’t Bother the Board

I recall a meeting with a Board Chair in preparation for a project.  Part of the project involved the deliberate engagement of the Board.  Individually and collectively the Board had to  commit the time that this effort demanded if it was to be successful.

The Board Chair had a concern – The Board members time.  I realize I’ve heard this before from other Board Chairs and CEO’s that wanted to protect their Board’s time.  Here are some common things I’ve heard:

“The Board is busy, we don’t need to bother them with this.”

“Our Board doesn’t have time, they’re just volunteers.”

“I’m trying to make it easy for my board.”

“The Board has better things to do.”

“Can’t we just do it and bring it to the Board.”

“My Board is full of busy people, they don’t have time.”

“Let’s not trouble the Board with this.”

Though I appreciate the fact that someone is protecting the Board’s time (by the way, a resource worth protecting), I’m concerned that in many instances  we are robbing the board of the opportunity to exercise their responsibilities and perform their duties.  Let me be clear, I’m  not for wasting time, I’m not for “meeting just to meet”, and I’m definitely not for engaging the Board in matters that don’t pertain to their roles, responsibilities, or expectations.  I am for the Board fulfilling their duties of Obedience, Loyalty, and Care.   I am for the Board providing proper over-site.  I am for the Board being engaged.

So what does this mean?? The Board is there to be bothered.  The Board isn’t there for the easy work, they’re there for the hard work. There’s nothing better for the Board to do than govern the organization and fulfill their roles, responsibilities, and expectations.  Yes they’re volunteers, but they’re accountable volunteers.   If the Board doesn’t have time to be the Board then they don’t have time to be on the Board. 

Bottom Line: Stop trying to make life easy for your Board.  Stop tricking people to serve on the Board by telling them “there’s not much to do”.  Stop depriving your board of the time, space, and opportunity to be the Board.  And most importantly, if you’re a Board member, stop letting your Chair and CEO let you off the hook – Be Aware, Be Engaged, Be Bothered!!!!!

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10 Things Every Board Member Should Know

There are plenty of lists regarding Board’s roles, responsibilities, and expectations – what every board or board member should do, etc…

We decided to take a different approach (a habit we’re kind of proud of) and create a list of the things we believe Boards should know.  After a crisis or challenge Boards have a tendency to “question” what they should have been “questioning” all along.  This list was developed based upon feedback from Board members (usually after a crisis) regarding the things they began to question.

So here we go.  10 Things Every Board Member Needs to Know:

  1. Why they’re on the Board.  What value do they offer. What unique, relevant purpose do they serve in that seat.
  2. What constitutes acceptable “performance” for the CEO and the Board?
  3. When it’s time to leave.  Let’s face it, nothing lasts forever.  Whether the bylaws has term limits or not, isn’t the point – at some point wisdom dictates you give up your seat for fresh eyes, fresh perspective, and fresh blood.  Like great athletes Board members should leave “on top” of their game.
  4. When the variance between Budget vs Actual is a “lowered” red flag.  Don’t wait til the flag is raised, it’s usually too late then – Where’s the point prior to raising the flag?
  5. Whether the board’s financial reports are presented in a “cash” or “accrual” basis.  Avoid the “I thought that was what we had in the bank” moments.
  6. If your CEO disappeared today, who would step in immediately, and keep things moving forward?
  7. The total monetary value of the CEO’s salary and benefits package. (Yes, believe it or not, there are some boards that don’t know what their CEO makes. This one deserves a separate blog – coming soon.)
  8. They only serve one term at a time.  Re-election isn’t automatic.
  9. The rate of staff turnover – particularly for key positions.  (You may consider the CEO your only employee, but if he/she can’t keep employees you may want to know why)
  10. What the staff and stakeholders think of their CEO.  Call it a 360 evaluation, stakeholder input, or whatever you’d like.  At best the average Board member sees the CEO once a month for about an hour  – is that really enough time and information to evaluate their performance.
  11. ….

We’ve found that asking these questions and paying attention to these issues reduces board apathy, increases board engagement,  and improves board performance.

By the way, we stopped at 10.  How about you offer up #11? What else do Board members need to know???

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