A Simple Solution to Nonprofit Board Inertia

26ltr7ca7chm9jyuExecutive Director: My board members left our last meeting so enthusiastically, with long lists of commitments and a real sense of excitement. What happened to them since then? I need them!

Board Member: That last board meeting felt really great. I had the opportunity to hear from the people our organization really touches. It was so motivating and inspiring. I left with a long list of commitments. Oy, the list. It’s still sitting here. What happened to me?

In just the last week, several readers have asked for a solution to this very problem. Seems like a pretty widespread issue. I’m guessing this happens at your organization, right?

But be fair. We all know what happened to your board.

Life.

Life smacked them right in the face.

Remember – this isn’t their day job. Board members fit in their volunteer gigs when they can. That might not be convenient for your organization.

So you can’t be mad at them for the fact that life gets in the way.

But you can improve the situation. I’m going to tell you how.

I call it the “Goosebump-a-Week Solution”.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT GLAAD…

First a story.  Back when I was running GLAAD, my board was stronger than most, equally as well-intentioned and understood its fundraising obligation. But between board meetings we would often knock and no one was home. Calls and emails unreturned.  It affected our ability to get things done and it affected staff morale.  I needed an idea.

That was the first time I tried the “Goosebump A Week” solution (back then I called it “The Cocktail Party Soundbite” memo but I’m liking GAW better.)

It worked wonders.

So what exactly is it? It’s about storytelling.

THE POWER OF STORYTELLING

Too often, communication between staff and the board feels transactional. Emails, calls from the development director, all sorts of requests. Burdensome.

Your board members need regular reminders that they care deeply about the organization and its mission.

They need fuel that will snap them out of “life” and into board member mode.

You can do this by telling stories.

Sound simple? It is.

THE GOOSEBUMP-A-WEEK SOLUTION

Here’s an easy-to-follow recipe for effective storytelling that will help keep your board engaged, focused, and enthusiastic between board meetings.

1) Engage staff. Every staff member in your organization needs to be able to tell a great story. They are your most powerful ambassadors. Each one should be able to back up the mission with a real life illustration of how the work has really touched someone in a really important way. This is a skill your staff members need to learn, so give them the opportunity to practice.

Ask your staff to write one story each week. Two paragraphs max – the story must be told so that a board member can read it on her/his iPhone in less than 3 minutes. Give the assignment to a few staff members each week. Deadline by Wednesday. Have a few to choose from. Select one, edit it a bit and circulate to your board on Friday.

2) Tell the right kind of story. The story should be:

  • True
  • Current
  • Personal
  • Mission centric
  • Easy to retell
  • Easy to remember (sticky)
  • Give your board member at least one goosebump
  • The impact of the organization should be clear as day

3) Package the story. In the body of the email, before you share the story, include language to this effect:

This weekend, when you are at the gym or at a party, you will run into someone you know. That person might ask you what’s going on at [your organization]. Here’s what you can tell them. Here’s what we hope you’ll tell them. This story about the power of work from [John Doe].

We know how hard it is to devote the significant time required to be a board member, but as you read this story, think about the to-do list you have as a board member. Maybe that list will transform into something else.

THE OUTCOMES

Tried and true.  Simple and important.

  • Your staff members become stronger ambassadors.
  • You will have an inventory of stories to tell at your next house party and can spread the goosebumps around even more.
  • Board members will become better equipped to talk about the organization outside of the boardroom. This can only help them bring more people to the organization. And the goosebumps they create will motivate them to continue talking about the organization and its work.
  • These stories will also be treasures for the Development department – for lunches or grant proposals.

GIVE IT A SHOT

If your organization is having a problem keeping your board motivated between meetings, I want you to try the Goosebump-a-Day Solution and write to me about it so I can let others know exactly how it worked. I’m happy to keep your information anonymous if you want, but you could really help a lot of my readers by allowing me to talk about your successful efforts as a case study.

Joan Garry
Follow me

Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
Follow me

Latest posts by Joan Garry (see all)