How To Build the Board You Want

Enough blame. Take responsibility. Here's a plan

Enough blame. Take responsibility. Here’s a plan.

Sometimes I feel like the host of The Blame Game.

OK, time to let you in on a secret. A lot of nonprofit leaders email me about what they’re struggling with. More often than not, it’s an Executive Director or board chair complaining about their boards.

  • Not engaged
  • Not raising enough money
  • Not giving enough money
  • Not caring about thinking about giving or raising money

You get the idea.

Complaining about the board is a nonprofit’s version of an Olympic sport!

Today, I want to give you (board chair, ED, senior staffer) some practical steps to improving this sorry situation at your nonprofit.

It’s time to take charge and build the board you want.

ASSESS THE SITUATION

You might try to reenergize and re-motivate your existing board members. But getting people to change is really hard. In the end, you may be best off bringing in new blood.

How can you know? The first thing you need to do is figure out what you have.

Now I have a board assessment tool you can use but here is something much simpler and very effective.

Create three categories of board members:

  • High performers (the true board leaders regardless of title – initiators)
  • Mid Level (will not initiate but will do something if asked)
  • Low Level (we ever so politely call category “dead weight”)

Go one at a time and put each board member in one of the three categories. When you’re finished, count the numbers in each bucket.

If you have a good board, you’ll find about 1/3 in each category.

Invest in the middle third. Engage them. Cultivate them and drive a few of them into the top third.

Usually, the bottom third will become marginalized and then start to fade away.

INSTITUTE TERM LIMITS

So now you have the makings of an improved board. But it can be impossible to sustain without a consistent flow of new, motivated members.

But, most nonprofits never make it a priority to find new board members because their old ones never leave.  Term limits force this to become a priority. It’s really that simple.

If you don’t buy that, comment below but the rest of my advice about how to fix your board is predicated on this one.

THE BOARD YOU HAVE IS THE BOARD YOU BUILD

By focusing on your best board members, working to elevate the mid-tier members, and instituting term limits, you are well on your way to reviving your fledgling board.

So what’s the best way to find new board members? And the right kind of people? Here are three tips:

1) Make the Executive Director a standing member of the Board Recruitment and Nominating Committee

This could be the very best advice I received from a colleague E.D. when I started my job at GLAAD. I knew who the board was considering, I knew when the pipeline was dry, and I offered ideas and prospects. And yes, I was a driver of the process.

2) Don’t look for A board member; look for THE board member

Here’s the paralyzing question that board members get asked over and over: Do you know any board prospects?

It’s paralyzing because it’s too general. You need to be specific.

Here are the questions you should be asking:

  • Do you know an attorney who might be interested in supporting our cause by joining our board and lending valuable expertise to our small nonprofit?
  • Do you know an HR generalist who may have an affinity for our work? Or who has come as a guest to our annual dinner? 
  • Do you know anyone in PR? We can’t afford a Communications Director and our fundraising efforts are lagging without visibility.
  • How about someone with real Internet savvy who can provide strategic oversight over our social media?

Would you ever hire someone without having some kind of job description? How would you even know who to look for?

So if you haven’t, it’s time for a conversation about the skills and attributes the organization needs on its board. Then begin a more targeted search.

3) Engage the staff in the hunt

Executive Directors – I’m sorry, but I need to call you out now.

You are all so busy blaming the board for, well, everything, that you forget something important. There are board prospects all around you. And who is equally likely to be interacting with them? Your staff.

The event chair. Or vice chair. A corporate sponsor. Need someone with sector expertise on your board (of course you do)? Ask your lead program person. What about a long standing volunteer? A five star client?

When was the last time you as the Executive Director had a senior staff meeting (or even a full staff meeting) in which you enlisted help in identifying great board members?

Oh, it’s been a while? Like never? Maybe too busy playing The Board Blame Game?

To the Board Chairs and Executive Directors reading this, a simple message worth repeating:

The board you have is the board you build.

I never said it was easy. Building a strong and effective board that is a real and true asset to the organization is one of the toughest jobs a board chair and an E.D. need to do. And one of the single most important.

NEXT: How To Build A Great Board

Joan Garry
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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
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Latest posts by Joan Garry (see all)

  • Craig Coogan

    Impeccable timing and brilliant coaching once again. Coming from a meeting with my Board Prez talking about the BoD Development roster for this year only to realize that I still have work to do myself (as ED) in the process! 🙂 Thanks!

    • I’m so glad it was helpful. And btw, if this ED thing doesn’t work out, maybe I should hire you as my press agent! 🙂 Best of luck and yes, YOU can make a difference in this process.

  • blawton

    I have long thought that the issue of expectations is both a board AND a staff problem. The staff, in particular, are quick to condemn boards for action or lack thereof, because they do not understand the role of the board. While much has been written about training boards, little seems to be established on the training of staff of the board’s role and how it should/should not interact with staff.

  • Frustrated President

    We’ve created an advisory board, and “problem” board members are asked to transfer their energies and time to serving on the advisory board because of the very busy schedules! So far, they’ve agreed readily to that use of their time and talents. And we’re picking new board members from that “proving ground”.