March 3, 2015

Mission Possible, 6 Essential Lessons for Board Engagement

board engagement -hands putting a puzzle togetherDid you ever watch an episode of the Mission: Impossible series? Its hallmark was a set of taped instructions that self-destructed after playing.

The recorded directions always offered the secret agent, a member of the U.S. Impossible Mission Force, an option, “Your mission, if you choose to accept it . . .” Naturally, the agent accepts the mission and deftly accomplishes the impossible before the show ends in 60 minutes.

Developing a supportive board creates a base for mission possibilities and growing a culture of philanthropy and your income in organizations. Many nonprofit leaders find obtaining all the board support they need a challenge. You might even believe that an engaged board is your mission impossible. However,  you have lots of power here, just like secret agents.

If You Choose to  Seek More Board Support: Reframe

Inspired nonprofit leaders dedicate effort to obtaining more engaged boards. They do this because this board support leads to more income and mission. If you seek more outstanding board support, decide that you will obtain it. Instead of approaching this as something the board should be doing, determine what you will do to support your board. Then, reframe the challenge.

SPOILER ALERT: One “secret” to more board support is to act.

Creating support results from education, skill-building, and discipline. This article focuses on these actions. To help you, I’ve created a menu of everyday education needs. Use it as a well from which to draw ideas as you plan your “Get More Board Support” campaign. Most people at least include a brief “enlighten and educate” experience in their regular meetings.

The Right Stuff to Learn

1. Your Nonprofit 101.

This topic helps board members, like Anna with the King of Siam, get to know all about you. At a retreat, a CEO was surprised to learn that a member didn’t know the nonprofit had a website. Another member was unaware of a program they’d been offering for two years. The CEO remedied this by creating brief meet-the-team sessions. During them, staff members share their work for five minutes and answer board questions for ten.

2. Funding Quick and Dirty.

To make sound decisions and help you obtain funding, every board member needs to understand how you earn funds, the effort necessary to gain them, and their relative size. Once this is clear, get them to determine a future funding strategy.

3. How We Earn This Funding.

You can also improve board support by taking the mystery out of nonprofit funding with facts and overviews of the processes used to obtain different income sources. Does your board think you magically get county funding, or do they understand the 60 hours of work required yearly even to apply? Do they want to solve income shortfalls by doubling donations without identifying additional resources to dedicate to the effort? Show them the paperwork and discuss the process.

Share the resources, steps, and timeline needed to obtain 200 new donors. By understanding the actions needed,  board members can deepen relationships and provide meaningful support. Eventually, explore the board action fundamentals for all seven nonprofit funding sources.

4. The Exact Help You Want.

What is a supportive board? Do your members know the answer? This education helps them understand how you hope they will do and how to do it and use their skills better. Create a list of the specific, measurable actions needed to support the organization. If income needs drive your efforts, ensure your board understands any financial expectations. For instance, if corporate funding is an area of focus, provide step-by-step training on telling your story and exploring corporate interest. To actively measure growing support, see Guilty as Charged, Prove Your Board Supports Your Organization, and this tool.

5. Mission Success, Energy Boosters.

Success stories are the antidote for the hard work, discouragement, and roadblocks everyone experiences to make the mission happen. Appropriate success stories refresh, sustain, and inspire us. What are the people stories behind your organization? Invite clients or staff to share. Ask board members to share why they are dedicated. For some members, helping your nonprofit is a penultimate event. It’s a lost opportunity for your nonprofit if the people sitting next to each other at meetings fail to learn the why behind their fellow board member’s passion.

6. Nonprofit Funding Landscape.

No organization operates on Mars. Specific education helps your board to grasp outside influences. For instance, many nonprofits invite their community foundation staff to talk about planned giving.

You need not stop there. Invite experts to speak for ten minutes and answer questions for five more. Ask your board members and vendors to be mini-guest speakers on topics like, “What do nonprofit organizations need to know about technology?” Don’t neglect what you have to offer. After attending a national conference, share your insights by providing relevant highlights in twitter-length lists in board-only emails. Enrich your board with the wisdom of others.

Accept This Assignment?

This article provides you with a mindset and actions to obtain more board support. In part, the support you seek will result from a combination of growing knowledge and skills — for you and your board members. Is board support, even for funding needs, Mission: Possible? Yes, and you don’t have to be a secret agent.

Resources Mentioned:

For more answers, check out this Nonprofit  CEO Library.

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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