Board members are great, aren’t they? They’re people who volunteer their time, talents, and resources with your organization. They’re dedicated to keeping your nonprofit moving forward by making wise decisions and building strategic goals. They’re one of your most valuable resources.
But working with board members can also be a pain! I hear from nonprofit fundraisers all the time who struggle to work with their boards. Board members can be overly cautious, uninspired or disengaged, or just downright stubborn.
I’m here to give you a couple pointers that will make working with board members a little easier. These tips are all pulled from conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues who, at some point, have been an exasperated board member.
Now, let’s be honest. No board will ever be totally free of quirks or foibles. But there are a few practices you can put into place to help keep things positive. Nonprofits run best when their board, leadership, and staff are all on the same page. Here are some strategies your board members would love to see!
1. Establish expectations and responsibilities up front
Do your board members know what’s expected of them when they join?
Establishing your board members’ roles and responsibilities before they commit to joining you is critical. Springing surprise responsibilities on board members will never go over well, so think long-term on this one. Board members should know short-term expectations, like when the next meeting will be or how long their term limit will be. But they should also know other details, like whether or not they’re expected to give at a certain level over a year or more or how many events they’ll have to attend.
The best way to ensure new board members know what’s expected of them is to host a board orientation. In it, you should cover topics like:
- Dates and times of board meetings
- Major event dates and attendance requirements
- The extent to which they are responsible for fundraising
- The extent to which they are required to donate to the organization
- Bylaws and other materials
- Legal obligations inherent with serving
- Their role on the board and what projects or programs they can influence
The information covered in a board orientation will vary from organization to organization. The main takeaway is this: a board member should go into their partnership with open eyes. It will save you some conflict down the line!
2. Identify sticking points (and solutions)
If you do a thorough job establishing expectations with your board members, you’ll almost certainly find a responsibility or obligation that makes them hesitate. And that’s good! Hesitation right away gives you an opportunity to address the problem before it becomes a problem.
Work with new board members (and existing ones) to find a solution to any sticking points you encounter. Some examples might be:
- A board member may find themselves in a circumstance that doesn’t allow them to give at the expected level. Is there a way to work around that? Could they make a smaller monthly donation instead of a single large gift? Can you find another arrangement?
- Someone may be anxious about the expectation that all board members help with fundraising. Could they help in a way that doesn’t involve them making a face-to-face ask alone? Could they set up a meeting between a potential donor and another staff member? Could they set up a peer-to-peer fundraising page and raise money digitally?
- Is someone reluctant to approve new tools or staff? What are their primary concerns? How could you prove the value of the extra expense?
- Is a board member overstepping their role and trying to manage staff or programs? Is there a way to redirect that passion and energy in a more constructive way? Do they see a shortcoming or have concerns they may not have expressed?
I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about board members being stubborn, disengaged, or wishy-washy. All of those are valid complaints! Those behaviors all stem from emotions that are also valid. Working to positively identify those emotions and work through them is much more constructive (and less stressful!) than letting negativity or resentment get out of control. You’re all the same team, and you all want your nonprofit to thrive. Find a way to make it happen!
3. Consistently meet with individual board members
Not all sticking points can (or should) be addressed at a meeting. That’s just one reason you should be meeting with your board members on a regular basis. Take someone out to lunch (or coffee, or a drink—whatever floats your proverbial boat) to evaluate how things are going.
What are their thoughts on the direction the nonprofit is going? Do they have any concerns they haven’t felt comfortable bringing up? Do they feel like their time is being well-spent?
A word of caution here: this time should be spent on constructive relationships and honest conversations about how to improve. It should not be spent gossiping or complaining about other board members or staff. Inter-personal conflicts can be addressed here, but be careful to approach those conversations professionally. We all know how easy it is to be drawn into negativity! Keeping the tone of your individual conversations positive and constructive will make them a valuable tool instead of a dangerous distraction.
4. Focus on exposing board members to real-life work
You’re passionate about your cause and your work. Why wouldn’t you be? You’re in it every day! You get to see the amazing impact your nonprofit makes on the world on a regular basis. You get to see it up close and personal.
Board members, on the other hand, may not be so lucky. If they seem disengaged and uninspired, evaluate their interactions with the work you do every day. If they’re anything like a lot of the board members I’ve met, they might not get to see the work you do in action.
Take care to get your board members out of the conference room and into the real world every once in a while. If their interaction with your mission is limited to reviewing your vision statement before diving into budgeting and strategy, they won’t be as passionate about your cause. That lack of passion can have very real effects! Service days, facility tours, meet and greets with clients, “field trips,” and other activities can make the work they do in the conference room more real to them.
Bring that closeness into the board room, too! Sharing success stories from your clients before the start of each meeting is a great way to subtly remind your board of how important their work is. You can also have your board members write a quick thank-you note (or two) to a donor—it gets them involved in your day-to-day activities, starts the board meeting on a positive note, and is great for donor retention.
When board members only ever interact with your nonprofit during meetings or events, it’s easy for them to become disconnected from your work. That lack of connection will affect their level of involvement, their commitment to meeting goals and fulfilling responsibilities, and the likelihood of them becoming advocates for your organization.
5. Communicate clearly (and hold others to doing so)
“Be a good communicator!” is one of the most played-out pieces of advice of all time. Everyone says good communication is important. Duh!
What we don’t talk about is how to be a good communicator. There’s more to communication than just talking or writing to your colleagues! To be a really great communicator, you have to consider factors like personality types, communication styles, the communication methods you use, and other elements. You also need to carefully think through what you say so you can communicate clearly enough that nobody misunderstands what you mean.
Here are some ideas you can use to facilitate clear communication:
Write down talking points and encourage others to do the same.
If you’re anything like me, you can get easily flustered when addressing a point about which you’re particularly passionate. I forget to include important points all the time! Whether you’re discussing altering a program, adjusting your budget, or changing your strategy, encourage your board to make written lists of talking points they want to hit. One, it will help you clearly communicate your thoughts. Two, it will make sure everyone communicates all their thoughts on a topic at one time. That keeps your meeting moving along smoothly and facilitates better conversation.
Communicate in person whenever possible.
The majority of communication is non-verbal. Being able to see peoples’ mannerisms and hear their tone of voice is absolutely critical to communicating well! This is especially important when emotions or conflict come into play! You can avoid lots of misunderstandings just by getting together with people and talking in person. You’d be amazed how many perceived conflicts are mere misunderstandings!
Translate for each other.
Some peoples’ communication styles are just different. If you have board members who have a hard time understanding each other, try “translating” for them. Sometimes it’s as simple as you rephrasing what they’re saying. It can come off as a little cheesy sometimes, especially if you’ve been having the conversation for a while. But being a little cheesy is better than being stressed out and frustrated!
Provide materials ahead of time.
Clearly communicating what your upcoming meeting will cover is so important! This, too, may seem like something of a no-brainer. Let’s be honest—working for a nonprofit means wearing a lot of hats, and it’s easy to forget to pull together an agenda until the last second. Sending your board members an agenda accompanied by a clear outline of what the expectations and goals are for a meeting is huge. It’s much easier to keep conversations and debates on track if you set limits beforehand!
Keep communications neutral.
When things get difficult, try to keep your conversations as neutral as possible. Stick to facts, not feelings, and keep the focus on your organization’s success instead of interpersonal conflicts. This article over at Bloomerang is a great resource if you’re working on this!
I’ve talked with lots of board members and lots of fundraisers who are frustrated with their boards. When you’re dealing with your board—either under good circumstances or bad ones—remember this: you’re all on the same team! You’re all working toward a better future for your nonprofit. You’re in this together!
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to building a great board and maintaining relationships with each member. But it’s a good place to start! Communicate clearly, communicate regularly, establish expectations, and facilitate good conversations. It’ll make your life (and your board members’ lives!) a lot easier!