My mantra has always been there are “three sides to every story; yours, mine, and the accurate one.” It’s not much different with nonprofits, but I’m often aware of at least five perspectives – board, staff, volunteers, donors, and service recipients. Managing each of these relationships is worthy of its own article, but today I’ll focus primarily on the board.
In my role as a consultant, I often hear frustrations from both board and staff as they attempt to manage their fragile relationship while advancing the organization. Prior to my current view, I had the pleasure of running nonprofits for ten years and serving on the boards of dozens over a period of 30 plus years. Whether I was behind the desk or guiding the organization as a board member, I was keenly aware of the dynamics and over time learned to respect the roles deeply.
At the heart of many of the issues surrounding board management are what I like to term the six C’s for Boards: Commitment, Communication, Clarity, Candor, Capacity, and Connections. If you can find common ground in these areas, you’ll generally find a stronger organization.
Board members can accept their board positions for the wrong reasons or see their roles in a different light. Often, it’s the fault of the orientation or selection process and the size of the organization and board will impact these challenges.
I’ve seen far too many organizations struggle to attain a quorum in their meetings. It’s often indicative of a larger problem, like meeting management issues or a deeper lack of passion, engagement, or commitment. Let’s face it, some members thought it would look good on the resume. Others were selected because of a perceived need instead of their passion for the mission. Commitment, a professional selection process, and a strong board chair helps mediate the problem – never the staff.
Nonprofits need to be masters at communication. In fact, I’d say communication is at the core of an organization’s success. However, board communications are key to successful engagement.
It starts with regular, two-way communication between Board and staff. Eliminate surprises, communicate hopes, needs, progress, and dreams. There are several tools which can help the process, like dashboards, advancement maps, and blocked times for discussion on the calendar.
Your board communication extends naturally to donors, sponsors, and prospects. If you’re not telling your story professionally and regularly, then you’re in danger of becoming stagnant.
Clarity and transparency go hand in hand. Not only do you need to be sharing key indicators, but you also need to be sure they’re clear to each group with whom you communicate. Some board members may be embarrassed to ask or uncertain as to the comparisons in the field. Others may be guilty of assuming “everyone knows” or tossing around program names and acronyms like they are common knowledge.
Test your messages outside of the organization. Too often what we think we’re saying is not what’s being heard by the volunteer.
More than ever, board members appreciate candor in your messaging and staff needs to own it. There’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of vulnerability. The heavily scripted message doesn’t play as well as an honest, straightforward, account of what you are experiencing. In fact, the candor may endear more people to your cause, help them identify with your plight, and help bring about a workable solution.
The candor extends to the board’s own interaction. Worrying about keeping everyone happy can prohibit frank discussions. Board members at the table for the right reasons will find a safe space to share their perspective rather than demand their point of view be accepted.
Issues surrounding staff and board capacity are more prevalent than any other. There are definite expectations and managing those is key. Is it realistic to expect the board or staff to successfully accomplish “x”? Possibly, but not without proper direction, analysis of all aspects of the project, and the time to do so.
I’ve learned capacity needs to be a two-way street with board and staff working together to resolve. Both board and staff need to be prepared to make concessions in expectations, or advance the level of knowledge of the other to meet halfway. Too often this chasm results in unnecessary and expensive turnover.
Today’s boards, especially those of small to medium-sized organizations, should be dedicated to making connections, and not for their personal benefit. Board members, as volunteers, are demonstrating an intense commitment to the mission of an organization. They need to take that commitment outside of the organization and have conversations with friends, neighbors, and colleagues about the important work of the organization. Their networks, linkage, and volunteer commitment are valuable assets to share.
Managing board relationships is time consuming but well worth the effort. You can’t rely on chance, so look to communication as your foundation and build the rest from there.