The Case of the Disengaged Board

Hi, I’m Joan Garry, and I’m here answering questions that board and staff leaders of nonprofits ask me, everything from occasionally to all the time.

Here’s a big one. I think of these as kind of like cases, like I’m Nancy Drew. Today we tackle the case of the disengaged board.

Are you hungry for a board that’s more engaged? I bet you are. So here’s three practical ideas and a bonus suggestion. Whether you’re the frustrated Board Chair that feels like you’re knocking and nobody’s home, or the frustrated Executive Director who feels like every request is met with crickets.

  1. Remember that no board is monolithic, so find your stars and bring them together in an alliance. Take your list of board members, divide them ones, twos, and threes. Your ones are your rock stars. Find one or two of them. It doesn’t take much. Bring them together, make them feel like a million bucks, and engage them in the process of working with you to tip the board in the direction you want to go.
  2. Make board meetings count. They are your best opportunity to create first-rate ambassadors. You want to do several things. You want to enrich them, something that gives them context about the sector or why the work matters. You want to engage them. Ask them legitimately and authentically for their advice, ideas, and suggestions.
  3. Keep them informed enough so that they can share accomplishments of the organization with the people they encounter. If you can enrich, inform, and engage you can ignite your board members to be engaged ambassadors for your work.
  4. Keep things alive between board meetings, and by this I do not mean nag them to sell tickets to the next event. You can nag them, but it has to be mixed up with some enrichment, a victory, a story they can tell, a mission moment some people call it. You’ve got to give them. You’ve got to feed them between board meetings if you want them at the next cocktail party to say, “Hey, you know, my job is great but boy am I loving board service. Let me tell you about something recently that happened at XYZ org.” That’s how it works.

Now, here’s the bonus. At your next board meeting try something.

Ask your Executive Director, maybe it’s an executive session with just the ED and the board, ask your Executive Director to offer his or her thinking about what he or she needs from the board in order to be successful.

Ask her to be specific and flip chart it, then turn the tables. Ask your board, “What does the board need from the Executive Director and the staff in order to be successful?” Flip chart that, too.

Take those two flip charts and make that the primary central focus of the next agenda for your ED, Board Chair check in.

How do those things come together in a way in which the ED gets what is needed from the board and the board gets what it needs to be successful, because you as copilots of this twin engine jet that is your nonprofit have to really make those engines work in sync. I think an exercise like that could be really, really valuable.

If this was helpful to you, join us in two places. One, on Facebook, Thriving Nonprofit with Joan Garry. Join us any time. There are almost 11,000 folks in there who find the conversation useful and valuable, and you can always subscribe to my blog, weekly pieces of advice just like this at joangarry.com.

See you next time.

It’s Time to Step Up and Join a Board

Can I ask you to stop for just two minutes and think about something? I want you to consider joining a nonprofit board.

Nonprofits all across this country are desperate for people just like you.

I bet you’re deeply committed to a few key issues. Maybe you’re tired of looking at a playing field that isn’t level for everyone. Or maybe you’re so damn tired of the ugly world we live in you just want to be part of the solution. Maybe you just wanna get out of the stands and onto the field.

So consider joining a board.

My friend Joe will tell you that his board service was transformational. Here’s a guy who cared deeply about immigrant rights, couldn’t sit idly by, so he joined a board. He developed leadership skills, a group of kindred spirits, networking opportunities, and he felt like he was part of something bigger than himself. He felt valued and valuable, and he took some of that with him to his professional life, where he now holds a higher level leadership position.

Do you think you don’t have time to join a board? I didn’t think so either. But I made the time because I cared that much.

And do you think you have to be rich or know someone that’s right? Can I bust that myth right here and right now? No and no.

All you have to do is care enough to talk about the organization to people, to invite them to know more and to do more, and that doesn’t take money to do at all.

So do me a favor. If you know somebody who’d be an awesome board member, can you share this video?

And if you think it’s you, take a few minutes, do a little homework, and please, for yourself and for the organization you will serve, join a board. Please.

How Effective is Your Board? Here’s a Simple Test

simple board assessment

Dysfunctional boards would be comical if they weren’t scary.

Did I tell you the one about the board that needed to fire the Executive Director, but the ED had stacked the board with friends (because there was no formal recruitment process) and so the motion did not carry? And in the next two years, the endowment disappeared?

Or how about the board that approved an $8 million budget with just one probing question: “How much is a first class stamp these days?”

Then there was the board that met for nearly a year without a chair because no one wanted the responsibility.

Oh, and then there was the board that finally made a strategic decision to eliminate an ineffective program that cost too much money in order to ensure the sustainability of the nonprofit. And then after the meeting, more than half the board resigned and started a competitive organization to keep that program alive. All because of a charismatic founder.

I could go on but you get the idea.

Nearly every problem an organization has can be tied back to a dysfunctional board. But fortunately, there are clear signs of a dysfunctional board.

Want to know what they are?

==>  Download my simple board assessment

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How Nonprofits Should React to the New Tax Law

new tax law

Is the new tax law making you anxious? You’re not alone.

What will the impact be? This question is coming up everywhere we turn – emails from readers, conversations at nonprofit conference room tables, and certainly in our Nonprofit Leadership Lab. In the Lab, it’s been such a big topic, we’re working to bring in a tax expert to help us make sense of it all.

(Side note: if you’re curious about the Lab, which is designed to support leaders at smaller nonprofits, there’s a lot of information available here.)

Will our worst fears be realized and way fewer people will donate? Or simply donate less?

Some have argued that wealthy people will have more disposable income and actually donate more, offsetting other potential losses. It’s possible that some – even many – nonprofits will see an increase in revenues this year.

For now, we can only speculate. Time will tell.

But one thing I know to be true is this. It’s time to take a renewed look at how we approach fundraising. Any strategy that relied on the tax deduction is going to be a whole lot less likely to work.

So what should we do instead? Here’s a hint… think about New Year’s Eve.Continue Reading

The Roles and Responsibilities of the Board Chair and Executive Director

roles

In most companies, there is a hierarchy of power. Typically, the CEO is at the top and it goes down from there.

Nonprofits are different. There are a lot of power centers. The board. The staff. Donors. Volunteers. Clients. Constituents. And on and on.

Yes, the board does have the ability to hire and fire the CEO or Executive Director. But the best run nonprofits run like a twin-engine jet with the ED and board chair acting as co-pilots. Leadership is shared.

But that doesn’t mean all decisions get made in tandem. There are certain things the ED must handle and other things that are the purview of the board chair.

Today, I’m going to break it all down for you:

  1. The responsibilities of the Executive Director
  2. The responsibilities of the board chair
  3. The grey area where the two need to work together

Here we go…Continue Reading

A New Resource for Nonprofit Leaders

Nonprofits are messy. You may have heard me say that before.

And if you’re a leader at a nonprofit, you know that it takes a village. It’s impossible to do it all on your own… even if you ARE kind of on your own. And so many nonprofit leaders I hear from do often feel alone, overwhelmed, and awfully frustrated in their jobs.

But I truly believe that if you stepped up and took a leadership position at a nonprofit, you’re a superhero. And like any superhero, you need your Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson. Your Justice League or Avengers… A group of fellow superheroes and supporters in your corner.

And that’s why I’m SO excited today to announce that I’ve opened the doors of the Nonprofit Leadership Lab to new members!

I created the Lab to help nonprofit leaders like you – both on the board and the staff – with the ongoing education, support, and community you need to thrive.

And if you could see my email inbox, you’d see how badly the sector needs this.

Just a quick heads up that if you think you might join the Lab, this registration period will close at midnight on Wednesday, October 18. This is so I can focus on the members instead of on marketing the Lab (which is very time consuming). So think about it, but don’t wait too long and miss the deadline.

WHAT IS THE NONPROFIT LEADERSHIP LAB?

Rather than write a long blog post explaining what this is all about, I whipped up this fun animation. It’s just a few minutes long.

 

I hope to see you in the Lab!

I invite you to learn more and see if the Lab is right for you at https://nonprofitleadershiplab.com.

Small Nonprofits Are Anything But Small

small nonprofits

There is something wonderfully unique about small nonprofits. Sometimes they are one-person shops – not a lot of bureaucracy. There is often a camaraderie – together as a community you are fighting for clients, for their needs, for what is right and just.

Here’s what I have learned. The only thing small about a small nonprofit is its size.

But with that size also comes some unique challenges. Maybe you recognize some of these in yourself or your organization?

  • Your mission is bigger than your bank account
  • You believe you can’t ever take a vacation because if you missed even just a few days all the work would literally stop
  • You have an overwhelming feeling that everything rests on your shoulders but still think it’s easier to try to do everything yourself then ask somebody for help. Who would you even ask?
  • You feel frustrated about your inability to get the word out given your limited resources and time
  • Your board isn’t stepping up or is made up of the wrong mix of people. Or they mean well but they just don’t know what to do next.

Just this week, I got an email from an Executive Director of a small nonprofit – the board voted to close down the organization because of its inability and skepticism about raising money.

Board and staff leaders of small nonprofits throw their hearts and souls into the work, feel totally responsible, wildly overwhelmed, and far too often like the “man behind the curtain” – the imposter behind the Great and Powerful Oz.

And there’s another thing that makes it especially tough for a small nonprofit. Not a dime for outside help. No coaching, no consulting, no supportive community. Little opportunity to learn from others, to secure a mentor and feel more competent, in control and less alone.

It’s time to do something about this. Here’s what I have in mind…

Continue Reading

10 Truths Every Board Member Should Know

new board member

Let’s say you’ve just joined a nonprofit board. You’re flattered. You really love the work the organization does. You have a general sense of the role of a board member – something about ‘governance’ and yes, you probably heard the word “fundraising.”

But you’re also thinking to yourself: I bet I don’t know half of what being a new board member entails. Or even, what did I get myself into?

And now let’s say your organization has a harried Executive Director (this may be redundant) who really should have put together a strong board orientation but there just wasn’t time. And maybe the board members who recruited you soft-peddled fundraising or time commitment or all of the above.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Today I’d like to share a list of things I wish I could tell every new board member and every old board member.

But first I just want to say that if you do it well, it will be…

  • More work than you anticipated
  • More responsibility that you may have understood
  • A bit more frustrating that you considered

But most importantly, it will be a rewarding joy and privilege of the highest order.

So with no further ado here are the 10 things I think every new board member should know and understand.Continue Reading

How to Know When You Are Overdoing It

overdoing it

One of my early forays into therapy was in 1997 when I became the Executive Director of GLAAD. I remember my first day in my new therapist’s office and of course she asked, “Why are you here?” My answer came quickly. “I like to solve problems for people – I’m a helper – but I’ve gone overboard. Now I feel like I have to take care of all the gay people everywhere.” 

I bet many of you feel this way. Not necessarily about gay people. But about all the cats who haven’t been adopted, or the community center you know would benefit so many, or the marginalized groups you lobby for, or the communities of faith you support with your work.

It’s a lot of pressure. And as I have been known to say, a profound privilege.

I wish I had the antidote for the tremendous pressure and overwhelming responsibility.

I don’t. And I’m really sorry I don’t.

I know I have written posts and recorded podcasts about how to manage it but ok, I’ll say it. I am highly imperfect.

I pulled a fortune from a fortune cookie a few years back. I keep it with me. It kinda said it all. “The best advice to follow is the advice you give to others.”

My team will tell you I’m frequently overdoing it. I feel like so many people are counting on me. I remember thinking about all the gays and it would stress me out. Now staff and board leaders of 1.5 million nonprofits? OY. And that’s just here in the U.S.

It takes its toll. I work at the expense of my hobbies, my health, my relationships.

Crazy, right? People I don’t know take priority over my loved ones.

And so my wife and I (just the two of us) spent the last two weeks at a health boot camp. It wasn’t fun. And I am abundantly aware that only Type A workaholics select ‘vacations’ of this sort. Well, and also folks whose health is at risk. My wife and I check both boxes.

We reset our health. We ate without salt, sugar and oil. We were up at 6:30 am daily. An hour of cardio, an hour of strength training, an hour of yoga and then lectures about what happens to your body with age, with stress.

I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned. Few folks will have the privilege of spending two weeks as we did but I can share the lessons. Some of them are personal – most of these unflattering. Some more global – educational and hopefully helpful.

And while I write about these lessons from my own perspective (female of a certain age) they apply to all of us.Continue Reading

How to Be a Great Board Member

how to be a good board memberYou never know whom you are going to sit next to at a bar mitzvah. I had the great fortune of sitting with an older woman who, for decades, has seen board service as a part of her life’s mission.

Clearly, I liked Gloria immediately.

Then, when she told me she never misses my blog posts, I liked her even more.

After we finished kvelling about the bar mitzvah boy, we discussed her current nonprofit.

“I serve on a very challenging board”, Gloria said. She began to describe her board challenges. She was right. Challenging.

When she told me about what she was doing to improve her board, I was impressed. Gloria was smart and clearly understood the big problems facing the organization.

  • An E.D. who saw the board as meddlesome
  • A board that was in fact meddlesome (well, not really in a bad way… just over-involved in minutiae)
  • Board members accustomed to playing the role of staff on small, grassroots boards that were now on the board of a larger organization with a staff of 30 and did not adjust their roles accordingly
  • A board chair that was not leading

But then Gloria told me a story about something that happened at a recent board meeting, and it hit me. There’s a key problem that Gloria failed to mention.

The problem… is Gloria.Continue Reading