A Clever Way to Fire Up Your Board For Year-End (Before It’s Too Late!)

by Joan Garry

If you'd like more help with up-leveling your board, I'd like to invite you to my free online workshop called, "Let's Build the Nonprofit Board of Your Dreams." You can get more details and sign up here.

Last week, a client said to me (with naïve surprise): “It’s like my board disappeared on Memorial Day and I haven’t heard from them since.”

Your board has behaved like a den of bears all summer. Serious hibernation.

And fess up. You gave up on them, assuming that if you knocked, no one would be home. So you didn’t do much knocking.

So here you are. Labor Day has come you are all officially “back in school.”

Time to put a laser focus on the final four months of the year. Regardless of your fiscal calendar, year-end is everything when it comes to fundraising.

So what’s the plan of attack?

I have a pretty clever idea for you. In fact, I like it so much, I may even try it with a few clients.

Here it is.


There’s not a human being for whom the phrase “back to school” doesn’t mean, “Ok, playtime is over. With a new lunchbox and sharpened pencils, I’m ready to take on the challenge of a new school year.”

My idea is that you should play right into this theme with every single board member.

Send every board member a box of sharpened pencils accompanied by a note that outlines the fall “syllabus.” If your board is small, consider lunch boxes.

In the best of all possible worlds, this gift should come from the board chair and the executive director – the partners who lead the organization.

What an incredible message that would send about the board and staff working in partnership.

So I think I’ve had crazier ideas. But I bet it will have a very big impact.


The syllabus should contain a draft of the top 5-10 big things you’d like to be able to say about the organization and its accomplishments on New Year’s Eve. These statements should:

  • Include programmatic successes that rest largely on the shoulders of the staff
  • Motivate your board to kick into a higher gear
  • Be ambitious but achievable
  • Be a core component of the first post Labor Day meeting so they can be finalized and locked in.
  • Define the focus for the entire organization between Labor Day and New Years Eve. If anyone is working on something not on the list, they should seriously reconsider that activity.


What might such a syllabus look like? Here’s a sample. Try it on and see if it fits. Perhaps it will spur some ideas of your own or you can use it as a template.

To:                        The Board of Directors

From:                   ED and Board Chair

Re:                         Welcome Back!!!

I hope each of you had a terrific summer and a chance to rest, see the world, read a great book, or binge all seven seasons of Breaking Bad. For those of you who joined us for our summer event, once again thank you. The participation of board members at our events sends a strong message to donors and prospects that ours is an organization that is engaged at every level. These are the kinds of organizations that donors love to support.

Are you wondering about the lunchbox / box of pencils? Maybe you have already figured it out.

Labor Day has come and gone and now it’s time to sharpen our pencils, pack our lunchboxes, and get down to the serious work that lies ahead for our organization between now and the end of the year. 

As you know _____% of our revenue comes in between October and December so clearly our fundraising efforts will need to be in high gear.

But that’s not the only way we will measure success when we raise our glasses to toast this fine organization on New Year’s Eve.

So ________ and I met last week and came up with a draft of what we think are the most important accomplishments we should be focused on between now and year’s end. As you will see, they range from fundraising goals to board member recruitment to a key programmatic success to a well-placed op-ed. Each of these “10 Big Things” aligns with our strategic plan.

We’ll be meeting later this month and will put this list on the agenda. We want to make sure the list has the right things on it, that they are clear and measurable, that they are ambitious but achievable and that we all have what we need to meet them.

These will become our 4th quarter marching orders. Here they are: 



So what might your “big things” look like? They’ll be different for every organization, but here are some ideas you can sketch out on the blackboard.

  • Inspiration. An external voice will be invited to a board meeting in September who will inspire the board and enrich them about the power and significance of our organization. The Board Development Committee and Development Director will use this inspiration to set a 4th quarter ‘new’ money target for the board (NOT event money). The committee will serve as a catalyst to move the board to that goal.
  • Wins. The staff will have a minimum of 2-3 tangible and measurable ‘wins’ that it can be proud of, that can generate visibility, and that can be beautiful stories for fundraisers.
  • ED Review. If your Executive Director does not have a formal review process, create a subcommittee to develop one by New Years.
  • Press. The organization should score some key visibility for its work. Doesn’t have to be The New York Times but shoot for an outlet that speaks to folks outside the choir. Here’s one way to get cheap PR.
  • Review of Accomplishments. Charge every board committee with a year-to-date review of goals and accomplishments. Each should meet in September to do this and then craft its own list of Big Things to get to before year-end.
  • Board Recruitment. Board governance should report out on the health and size of the recruitment pipeline. There should be a discussion on the top 2-3 recruitment priorities (and it can’t just be “more.”). Things like we need a PR person or we have a huge donor pool in Dallas so we really need a board member there. Put a laser focus on filling those priorities by adding more names to the pipeline and vetting process. Here are some tips on finding great board members.
  • Staff Appreciation. Don’t wait until December. Every staff member should be acknowledged during the holidays. If you are going to close the office for a few days, get to that NOW so staff can plan. If you are going to get everyone a little something, make it personal. Here’s a staff gift idea for inspiration.
  • Review the Strategic Plan. I guarantee you there are a few things you haven’t done or haven’t finished. You might toss them on the list.


The list that accompanies the lunch box should be written in the form of “toasts.” Not to-do’s. Everyone loves to sit in front of the fireplace with a glass of champagne and stroll down memory lane about things you are proud of. So make the list, check it twice, get the board behind it, and keep the list with you throughout the fall. All eyes on the list and there will be some serious toasting before the ball drops in Times Square.


If you’d like more help with up-leveling your board, I’d like to invite you to my free online workshop called, “Let’s Build the Nonprofit Board of Your Dreams.” You can participate at your own convenience. In the workshop, I’ll teach you three steps that can transform you board from ‘hot mess’ to ‘high functioning’. You can get more details and sign up here.