I love this quote, it insightful and conveys the inspirations and aspirations of people who want to serve their communities as nonprofit Board members. They are excited and moved by the vision of what’s possible.
However often when we ask people to serve on Boards, as soon as they say “yes”, we tend to gloss over the “imaging what’s possible” and immediately hand them a contract and set up an orientation focusing on the expected commitments; the needs: “you need to fundraise”,”you need to invite people to our annual dinner” and the musts: “you must attend at least 75% of the meetings,” “you must make a personal contribution,” and “you must serve on a committee.”
People are enthusiastic to fulfill those obligations: They want to be responsible, committed board members, they want to support the organization as advocates, ambassadors, friend/fund raisers and they are happy to attend productive meetings. Meetings where people trust one another, where there is respect for different views and encouragement of healthy conflict. Meetings where members and the organization hold themselves accountable for results and vision and where creativity and innovation is encouraged and celebrated. And meetings that are energizing, and, just as importantly, fun!
Most importantly they expect to engage in moving the organization’s mission and vision forward and knowing there is value and respect for their time and service. They want to know that their actions and efforts are moving the vision for the community forward. They want to know that they are making a difference. People serve on Boards because they want to govern; they want to serve as stewards and want to engage in strategic, dynamic organizations that positively impact their communities. What could be possible for our communities if everyone who served on Boards believed that their service was positively impacting the world?
In supporting people in choosing if a board service opportunity is right for them, there are some questions I ask them to explore:
- Is this an organization whose mission and vision I am passionate about?
- Is this an organization whose culture and values I share?
- Is this an organization who would benefit from the talents, skills, and leadership I would bring to the organization?
- Am I passionate about being a community steward?
I also recommend they engage in this conversation with the organization’s leadership and ask:
- How do you move your mission/vision forward?
- How do you live your values?
- How do you engage in strategic planning? Is conversation about strategy a part of every board meeting?
- What is your business model?
- How do you coach, mentor and train board members?
- How do you address mission, vision and values during regular board meetings?
- What is the process for dialogue? How is participation nurtured?
- How do you develop and support new board members?
- How do you structure committees to ensure the work of the Board gets done?
- How does the organization celebrate its accomplishments?
There are many talented, innovative, and energetic people who want to serve on Boards; however, they are looking for experiences that have meaning. Experiences that build their team-building and leadership skills and enhance their sense of commitment to community. If you are thinking about serving on a board these are some questions you may want to ask; if you are recruiting new board members, think about how you answer these questions. And, enjoy! Board service is an amazing experience.
The Board Experience
Ask people about their experiences on nonprofit boards, and answers can be downright jaw-dropping, “The meetings aren’t productive,” “This wasn’t what I expected when I joined the board,” or “I don’t see how these meetings make a difference”. We join boards to make our communities healthy, vibrant places, to use our time and talents to support causes we care about, and to become part of a network that shares our passion about issues important to us.
A troubling new norm is developing — we start believing this “rather dull” experience is what we should expect. Many people tell me, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” Although, I believe that’s not the way it has to be.
This norm is that it a rare experience for a board member (or CEO) who thinks prior to a Board meeting, “I can’t wait to go to the meeting today, I expect to be inspired and energized.”
I think about this a lot. I have spent the last 20 years serving on numerous boards representing of all types of organizations — local, municipal, regional, and national. I have also served as a CEO to four community organizations and have worked with some extraordinary people. And, I have the joy of engaging in the extraordinary Board meeting where everyone said, “Wow that was great, we accomplished so much, I can’t wait until we meet again!” In short, I have left board meetings exhilarated and I have left board meeting exhausted. Given the choice, I will pick exhilaration any day!
Often we leave Board meeting feeling like the greatest accomplishment was “we ended on time.” For a room full of intelligent, committed people this is deflating. This doesn’t happen because the people aren’t committed, it happens because often the structure isn’t designed to focus on the most important issues. We approve the minutes, give reports (and more reports), and bemoan the budget situation. We don’t spend much time on the “good” stuff” — what have we been doing right for the community, for our organization, for our clients? And, how can we do more of it even better?
Highlighted below are 10 tips for making Board meetings more engaging, productive and enjoyable.
1. Focus on the most important issues. Plan to discuss the most critical issues first. What do we need to discuss/accomplish to move our mission forward. Support this by: placing the organization’s mission and vision on the top of every Board meeting agenda. This keeps members focused on the key reasons they are there; to support the mission and vision the organization has for its community. Start each meeting with discussion about the most important issues on the agenda first.
2. Determine if it is Decision/Advice/Information. When discussing important issues, clarify how you are asking members to respond. On each agenda item note: 1) does this issue need a decision, action or vote 2) does this issue require advice or guidance, is this an issue that the organization is seeking collective wisdom to make the best decision, or 3) is this an agenda item that is for information purposes, to inform and educate board members. Again, place the most important issues on the top of the agenda. (“Act” and “Discuss” first, “Report or Information” second).
3. Create Opportunities for Creativity, Imagination and Vision. If the rule in real estate is location, location, location, the expectation for Boards is vision, vision, vision. Create opportunities for the board to spend time focusing on vision; the vision they have for the community how the organization is meeting this vision. Ask them, what is the legacy you want to leave?
4. Create an Outcome Measurement Matrix. Create a chart updated at each meeting informing the Board about how organization is doing in critical areas: program and impact, fundraising, financial health, Board of Directors engagement, human resources and risk management/compliance. Use a matrix or dashboard metric to show process on quantifiable measurements. Color code progress to goals (red=act; yellow=watch; and green=celebrate). Use the matrix to focus on important areas without searching though pages of reports. An excellent example of a good dashboard is available on the Blue Avocado website (www.blueavocado.org).
5. Change it up. Host meetings at different locations and consider incorporating different formats into the meeting agenda. If there is a major issue that needs discussion, break people up into small groups for 10-15 minutes, then have groups briefly report back. This gives everyone a chance to engage in the conversation. When people engage, people commit.
6. Include Stories and Testimonials at Every Meeting. Stories are powerful. Include at least one story about someone affected by the organization at every meeting. People want to hear about people. Share the stories of those who benefit from your organization’s great work. Testimonials are inspiring and give members stories to tell when they go out to fund/friend raise for your organization. Stories give members the information they need to serve as champions, ambassadors and advocates for your cause.
7. Build Trust. Create trust by creating a culture where confidentiality is respected, engagement is encouraged and final decisions are presented to the community with “one voice,” Ask members to leave negativity and cell phones at the door.
8. Spend twice as much time discussing as reporting. Create opportunities for people to engage, deliberate and contribute.
9. Reflect and Evaluate. Take time to reflect. We tend to plan to implement and miss the opportunity reflect and evaluate is an important part of the process: (plan-implement-reflect). Conduct an evaluation of the Board at the end of the year. During the year provide feedback cards for optional thoughts and comments. If members have feedback there is a venue to share comments with the board leadership or CEO.
10. Celebrate! Annually (or more often!) share the organization’s accomplishments with the Board. Ask members to take part and share what they think are the greatest successes. Take time during every board meeting to celebrate at least one major accomplishment and take time to acknowledge the excellent work of individual Board members and staff who have gone “above and beyond.” Celebration and focusing on the positive can have a contagious reaction that impacts the organization, board and staff. Make sure to take time to celebration the organization’s accomplishments.
The Board of Directors – the most ubiquitous topic in the nonprofit sector containing volumes of research on 1) what it takes to be a good Board member and 2) the responsibilities of a Board member (organizational oversight, fiduciary oversight and fundraising)….which would be a whole lot more fun if we called it advocacy, friend-raising, relationship building, movement building (alas, that is a convo for a different day…). Although, I have not found much material on the questions to ask yourself before agreeing to serve. Most of us get a phone call, or invited to a lunch with the CEO and Board Chair or an invitation from someone we like and admire. Flattered, we say “yes” and then get home and ask our dog, “what did I get myself into?”
Being on a Board can be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences; serving a Board can be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences. However, I think we can enhance the “rewarding” component by asking ourselves these four questions before making the important commitment to serve on a Board.
Questions to ask yourself before agreeing to serve on a Board:
1. Is this an area where I have real passion. Do I care deeply about this cause and am I willing to commit my precious time, talents and treasures to it? Be really honest with yourself here. There isn’t a right or wrong answer; there is just THE answer.
2. Of all the organizations engaged in this cause is this one whose culture resonates with me? Do I feel like it is a fit? Will I enjoy being a part of this organization’s journey? Do I believe in the leadership, culture, and values of this organization? Do I feel like I can make an impact? Do I feel as if my voice will be heard, my talents put to their best use, and that this experience will provide me with an opportunity to learn and grow.
3. Do I have the time, energy and resources to give this organization my best? Again, there is no right or wrong answer to this question; sometimes “right now” is not the best for the engagement required to be an excellent Board member and there are other important ways you can serve the organization such as financial supporter, advocate, volunteer or friend.
4. Do you have an interest in governance — wanting to support the organization in creating and moving a vision forward, thinking about “the change they want to see in the world because they exist?” “the relationships in the community that need to be developed to create this change?” and “the measurable, tangible benefit to they are providing to the community?”
If you can answer “yes” to these four questions, you are probably on your way to the beginning of a rewarding Board experience. I have served on many Boards, and these are the questions I wished someone had given me to deeply consider before I committed. The most rewarding, fun, meaningful Board experiences have unequivocally been the ones where I was able to answer YES to these four questions.