You are the director of a non-profit organization. You have a well-articulated mission that details all of the amazing accomplishments you wish to attain for your organization and the community you serve. At the table you now sit across from a dozen or so bright and accomplished individuals with myriad capacities and potential contributions as your board. You find yourself, however, riddled with angst, about to deliver a report peppered with underwhelming results, waning numbers and mounting challenges. Where did it all go wrong?
One of the greatest challenges faced by every non-profit organization at some time or another in their evolution is that of successful board engagement. As you may be well familiar, it can be a significant struggle to compel board members to fulfill their roles and obligations – particularly when those responsibilities encompass anything related to fundraising. Before you are going to be able to lead and empower effectively, you must first ask yourself some key introspective questions:
Why should they get involved?
If you have a hard time answering this question, you have greater problems than board engagement! The simple response should be a quick, passionate and free-flowing litany of all the reasons why your organization is essential.
Do you really want them involved?
Now, if you stumble on this question, you may want to reconsider. Often the trap may prove tempting to tell yourself “oh, if only I had the budget for a larger paid staff!” If you find yourself succumbing to those kinds of thoughts, remember this simple truth: paid staff members are motivated by, well … their paycheck. Volunteer board members, rather, derive their motivations from a desire to contribute to your good works. Given that, ask yourself again who you feel would be best suited to take on the important duties of your organization.
Does board conviction truly add value?
It is imperative for your board to comprehend and appreciate the role that philanthropy and fund development play in your organization. The definition of philanthropy is “voluntary action for the common good”; the key term here is “common good”. Board members achieve far greater satisfaction, surveys reveal, when they feel their involvement is well utilized. When board members are provided ample and organized opportunity to participate and contribute, everyone wins.
When you look at your own board, if these characterizations seem unfitting, you have a problem that would benefit from being addressed. While it is often easy to label such organizational challenges as symptomatic of a fundraising problem, chances are the problem has very little to do with fundraising, and everything to do with board screening and recruitment. Assuming that is the case, the most important question remains – what can you do now to remedy things?
Would it be easier to just jettison the current board and replace with new members? This may seem a decent idea for some, but it does not in any way target the place where the lack of engagement responsibility truly belongs – with top leadership. Recruiting an entirely new board without adopting some of these simple tactics might serve merely as a reminder of the definition of insanity – “to go about things the same way, while expecting a different result.” Before falling victim to that sort of trap, first try following these steps:
1. Define The Roles
Each board member should have a unique and well-defined job description – and, each job description should incorporate the overarching functions of corporate governance and related authority. It should also clearly connect the importance of the role and function to the success of the organizational mission.
2. Set Clear, Tangible Organizational Goals
Every goal of your non-profit – particularly anything fundraising-related – should be summarized in a detailed plan of action, with a crystal-clear pathway paved for each board member’s involvement. Goals are most meaningful when they are attainable as well as accompanied by an actionable strategy where everyone participates.
3. Outline Performance Expectations
Implement specific and clear performance expectations common to all board members – including you! In particular, be certain this type of policy delineates expectations in terms of business relationships and fund development. These performance expectations should include support of the values, mission and vision of the organization, mandate attendance at routine meetings, emphasize maintaining confidentiality, and assert necessary avoidance of any conflicts of interest.
4. Hold Board Members Accountable
This concept may be difficult to embrace, but the reality is this – when you hold all board members accountable – as well as yourself – each individual board member will feel more empowered regarding their own contributions. Evaluate board member performance on an annual basis, providing feedback to high as well as low performers, similar to how you would with employees.
5. Reprise And Recap
Celebrate your successes, and learn from your pitfalls. Where a victory is attained, be sure to be generous in giving credit where credit is due. Whenever a goal is not met, capitalize upon the opportunity for a candid discussion and feedback session for your board – perhaps at an annual retreat or planning strategy meeting. Learning from mistakes when something goes wrong is often the best tool for improvement an organization will ever be given; be sure to use these tools to the utmost when they are provided.
Remember – your board members are there for a reason. That reason is rooted in a desire and affinity for your organization and cause, coupled with a willingness to give their time in order to render a positive impact. No one likes to feel as though they are on an island in terms of their commitment or what they have to give; if you have one board member with a great deal to contribute, they will sadly be apt to refrain if other board members around them are enabled to continually wallow in non-contributory, status quo complacency. While following these steps may lead to some shedding of dead weight, the positive flipside is that your organization will in turn be afforded greater room to identify and attract board members who will accept and fulfill your organization’s clearly-articulated responsibilities much more effectively. You will likely find the board members that you retain endearing themselves even more to your organization, and working harder towards shared goals – which in turn means even greater success of your mission moving forward.
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