making the most of your board

In talking with non-profits about strategies for success, the subject of Board participation and commitment frequently surfaces.  It seems many non-profits struggle with creating a Board that has the right combination of individuals to provide the expertise, experience and diversity of views they need to achieve optimum results for the clients they serve.  Here are three trends that I have identified and some possible solutions to consider.

Problem Trends

All organizations are different, but I am seeing three trends that make having a great Board a challenge:

  1. There are still some organizations out there that have failed to define their ideal board—to create specific outlines of the types of Board members they seek, to clearly define what the role and responsibility of each member will be, and to document how his or her term will be managed to allow for lear transitions.

    Even when job descriptions and term limits are in place, Boards struggle with how to enforce them—a task that is critical to the functional leaders of the non-profit, but interpersonally uncomfortable and awkward for the Board itself to manage.  I have encountered several cases where the group’s founder becomes a roadblock, unable to relinquish control or to detect mission creep or to accept that environmental changes make it time for an adjustment or refocus in strategy.
     
  2. Other organizations complain that their Board members are not fully engaged. Some fail to commit the time and resources necessary for the success of the organization. Some are less than passionate about the cause, so they are unable to engage others. 

    Engaged Boards can be a powerful force for the good of the organization.  But, to be honest, some functional non-profit leaders, the Executive Directors or CEOs, actually seem to prefer it this way.  They seem unable to find a balance between the visionary, leadership participation they need from their Board and the hands on management that can sometimes create a bottleneck that hinders the organization's progress.
     
  3. Most everyone reports that there seems to be a lack of talent available for Board positions. Non-profits often look to their Boards for expertise in legal issues, marketing, human resources, IT, or other issues critical to their successful operation.  The most talented individuals in a community sit on several Boards and are stretched thin.  Many candidates are genuine, but some less-than-ideal candidates are looking more to boost their own resume or meet some requirement of their employer than to make a difference in the cause of a non-profit. 

    The lack of great candidates may be a sign of the times.  Non-profits have typically recruited individuals who have significant career experience and are recognized community leaders.  Today, however, those Baby Boomers who should be entering retirement and looking for ways to occupy their time while making a difference in the world are likely to still be actively working.  They may be trying to rebuild the retirement funds they lost in their defined contribution retirement plans during the uncertain markets of recent years or trying to put aside more for the uncertain and high cost of healthcare. 

    The next pool of candidates, the Gen X’s, are also stretched thin.  Many waited into their 30’s to marry and start their families, so they’re still busy attending sporting events and band concerts, working longer hours to make ends meet, and worrying about paying college tuition.  Most are working longer hours in the hopes of simply staying employed. 

What You Can Do to Start

Here are four actions you can take to make your Board more valuable to your organization.  In future editions of my blog, I will address each of these in detail.  For now, here is some food for thought.

  1. Assess where you are today
    Create a spreadsheet  to capture the current characteristics of your Board.   What demographic segment of the stakeholders in your organization does each represent?  What special skills and knowledge does each bring to the table?  What has been the level of each member's commitment, involvement, engagement in the past? Meet with each one-on-one to discuss what they have to offer the organization and what they want to get in return.

  2. Invest in your current board
    Organizations seem reluctant to ask their Board for the time to attend an offsite retreat or strategy session, but I find that this is the best way to get members engaged and heading in the same direction.  Getting away allows Board members to focus, it creates a climate that blocks out distractions and encourages open-ended thinking, and a solid agenda and skilled facilitator can ensure that your time will be well spent and your outcomes clearly documented and assigned timelines and resources.  Groups form commitment around successful problem solving and they will align around solutions that they help design.

  3. Cultivate your volunteers
    Make sure everyone in your organization understands the importance of your volunteers and makes a conscious effort to create real, meaningful relationships with them.  Provide a proper orientation to the work your organization does and create experiences so they can connect to your cause.  Don’t ever waste their time.  Your volunteer base is a great place to recruit Board members who know what you do and care passionately about your mission.

  4. Reach out to the Millennials—also known as GenY. Now in their late teens and early 20’s, Millennials offer a unique opportunity to non-profits.  Although they are known as the “entitlement generation,” and have been criticized for winning trophies, even for coming in last place, they are also great team players who have a strong drive to make a difference.  They see problems and say “how can I fix that?”  They are tech savvy and extremely connected—with most having hundreds or even thousands of “friends” and contacts on Facebook and other social media platforms.  Having a Millennial perspective on your board can help you tap into this important and powerful force.