When asked what she would like to read about in this newsletter, Ilene Denton, the incoming chair at The Hermitage, an artist retreat center on Manasota Key, told me, “I’d love to read more about the board’s role in a nonprofit.” While much solid advice exists about how to be a good board member, a lot of it is nebulous. This article provides five measurable ways to be a model board member.
1. Fully Engage. “Most of them only attended board meetings,” a CEO moans about board members. “We had such a hard time getting quorum that we dropped monthly meetings and started having quarterly ones. Now even these are scarcely attended.” The most important action to help a nonprofit you love is to fully engage. Attending meetings is just a start. Determine what it means to fully engage at your nonprofit. Ask staff to come prepared with their ideas, and then devote thirty minutes to the topic at a board meeting. Use this list as a starting point. Create a list of expectations, and then measure engagement. Reward it when it happens. One nonprofit offered a monthly engagement prize for board members who, “went beyond the call of duty.”
2. Draw the Circle Bigger. “Thank you,” said my yoga instructor Anita, “for bringing people.” As I went to my car, mat over my shoulder, I realized that over the years I had invited many friends to the class. The invitations were a sincere effort to share something of value. To succeed, your nonprofits need a community of dedicated supporters. Since you love this nonprofit, be intentional about inviting others. Set a personal standard to issue five invitations per month, or sixty per year. Create your own techniques to make it a discipline, such as:
- Invite a new couple to dinner before all events so you can all attend together.
- Ask different friends to review a grant or marketing materials with a fresh eye.
- Ask staff to create an invitation for a future event that you can send to your whole mailing list with a personal note.
3. Donate: Be a Living Model. Your nonprofit needs funds to survive and thrive, so naturally giving donations is on this list. The goal here is to be a model to others by donating a sacrificial gift. Set a stretch goal for yourself. If you know you can donate $100 a month, consider $125 or $150 instead. When you attend to your finances, write this check first.
4. Have the Mind of a Beginner. As a board member, no matter what your expertise is, rejoice that you have more to learn, especially about income development. We all do. “I realized that while my board members knew a lot, they knew only a little about fundraising and running a nonprofit,” explains Martha Macris, Executive Director of Memorial Assistance Ministries in Houston. “One of my roles is to lead and teach them about fundraising.” Nonprofits are complex. They can earn seven sources of income (for more see xx). Besides understanding the overall process of how your nonprofit obtains income, you need to know about the current business climate and current trends in the field. Suggested minimal action: read and learn from one book, magazine, newsletter, podcast, or workshop a month. To go beyond the minimum, incorporate 30 minutes of board learning at every meeting.
5. Make Logical Decisions.The goal was to provide more housing to the community. The idea was to save existing houses that were being torn down to lengthen an airport runway. They applied for a large federal grant to move them. They didn’t get it. It was good news. Moving a dozen houses down a major thoroughfare would have been a project from the dark side. The goal to save existing houses, when it is easier and cheaper to build new houses, was emotional and not logical. Help your nonprofit to make logical decisions with the three tools below. Select one to use at your next meeting. Stay with it as long as it takes to form a habit before moving on to a second tool.
a. Ask for Evidence. When people make statements, ask for proof before decision-making. Help the board to find and review verifiable information. Diplomatically ask for evidence at meetings to improve your decision-making. For example, imagine that during a meeting to discuss a possible special event a co-member states: “Another organization made over $20,000 in two hours with this same event.”
“How do we know that?”
“It was in the paper,” the co-member replies.
You probe, “Did it mention how much they spent to make the $20,000?”
“No, but I’m sure we can do just as well.”
“Well, before we adapt their idea, it’s pretty important that we know that,” you begin, “and more. How can we find out how much they spent to make the money – was it $20,000, or $1,000? Can we also find out how much time they invested?”
This is not about distrusting hearsay. It is about obtaining enough information to make good decisions.
b. Generate Options. Boards often get locked into thinking they must pick one of two unattractive options. Alternatives are almost always available. Find them by framing the situation in new ways. In a meeting about ethics, a group of fundraisers was asked if they would take a gift of one million dollars for a children’s service agency from a convicted sexual predator. They were given a take-it or leave-it choice. In the discussion, the best answer was a third alternative: ask the potential donor to make the gift anonymously. This choice provided a way to say yes to the gift, protect the nonprofit’s brand, and allow the donor to make the gift. Help the nonprofit that you love to generate more options when it must decide between two unattractive choices.
c. Invest in The Important. Nonprofit staffs’ can be so busy with the press of the urgent that it is difficult for them to separate the urgent from the important. As a board member, you are in an excellent position to help. As you look at the tasks ahead, take a large-scale view. Which tasks create the most mission long-term? Which are most important? Which are only urgent? Then, as a board, direct your energies so that the important receive priority attention. Until you exercise this discipline throughout the organization, the urgent will never take its rightful role.
Remember You Are Precious.
You are a precious resource to the nonprofit you love. According to David Renz in a recent Reframing Governance webinar, 70 percent of nonprofits express difficulty attracting quality board members. As a board member, you want your time to be worthwhile. You want to help the nonprofit. This article shares five concrete ways to act on your commitment. Select at least one to begin today.