You have the greatest board in all the world. They are clear about their mandate. They don’t micromanage. Their skills and passions are suited to your current challenges and strategic opportunities. They work effectively as a team, demonstrate integrity and a strong work ethic, and are constantly on the lookout for future leadership. And regardless of their committee assignments, they aggressively pursue fundraising opportunities. RIGHT?
We hope so, but often enough we hear of frustration with board members, questions about their dedication, and annoyance with their hesitation to embrace their fundraising role. Are they trying to drive you crazy? Likely not. But they are sending a clear message – they may not be ready, willing, comfortable, or equipped to take on the level of leadership you need.
What DO you need?
Sometimes board inefficacy is a natural byproduct of an unclear leadership role and undefined expectations of its board members. Ideally your bylaws would guide this, but occasionally that out-of-date document is too antiquated and no longer reflects the current needs of your organization. Staffing changes such as growth, expansion, or reduction in size or talent also impacts what you need of your board.
So take a good look at who you are as an organization - what is your mission, vision, and plan to achieve your goals? With these questions in mind, what do you MOST need from a board?
Reverse Engineer – The Board Litmus Test
Another way to approach the issue of streamlining your board and defining its purpose, is to ask yourself - what would happen if all your board members suddenly vanished? What if they all just resigned? What are you thinking when you consider that possibility? How would that affect your operations? How would it affect the experience of those you serve? What would happen?
If the answers that come to mind include responses such as these, it might be time to reimagine your board:
- It wouldn't affect us that much.
- Actually, it might be a good change, and could save us a lot of time.
- Well, there is that one gal who is a really valuable member of our team.
- Losing everyone would be devastating, how would we function?
Now think, what does your answer tell you? Of course we don't want anyone to be devastated, but what would it be like to have a board eagerly and vitally contributing to your success? What does it take to have a board like that? Let's explore some characteristics of highly effective boards.
Characteristics of Strong Boards
There are several common traits that define a strong board. Here are just a few:
- Clear Mandate
- Specific Goals and Objectives to Meet Current Challenges
- Membership Committed to Mandate and Appropriate to Tasks/Roles
- Viable Committee Structure
- Cultivation of Future Leadership
- Excellent Communication and Work Ethic
- Strong Board/Staff Relationships
- Written Expectations
Use this list for a quick check up on your board's health. How many of these characteristics does your board possess? What is MOST needed at this moment in time from your board? That’s your clear mandate and it should drive enlistment and board activity. If you really need a fundraising board, be intentional about your creation of other committees and be clear about the different expectations for the members of each.
Speaking of Enlistment…
Many board challenges stem from not having the right people at the table, or having them there without a clear understanding of what they are expected to do. The board member enlistment process should ensure that you avoid that pitfall. Identify the qualifications and characteristics you most need and then brainstorm potential members. Consider talent, passion, and affiliations. Imagine what committees would be best served by their expertise and interests. When the list is complete, rank them by desirability, potential impact, and likelihood of agreeing to join.
Once approved for consideration, develop a set of interview questions to ensure each candidate is similarly vetted. Determine who would be the best enlister for each candidate. An enlister is the person to whom the potential board member can’t say no. Prepare them for the initial contact, meeting, and follow up. Make sure that if the candidate hesitates when made aware of the expectations as a board member, he or she is offered the option to serve as a committee member without board status.
A savvy board candidate will ask you about the expectations of board members, so make sure you can clearly articulate the standards you have established. This might address board and committee meeting attendance, committee work, as well as interactions with staff, donors, members, and those you serve. It will likely remind them of their role as ambassadors for your organization when in public, and the understanding that while healthy and respectful debate of ideas in meetings is welcome, once a decision is made all must speak with one voice.
What About Funding?
Expectations in this regard typically include giving (annual, capital, events, bequest) with a stated minimal amount or commensurate amount to be raised; fundraising (direct, events, other); and prospecting (identifying, qualifying, initiating). If you introduce a "give or get" mandate for the first time and there is resistance from existing board members, consider a grandfather clause where current members start with a smaller initial amount to increase over the next few years, but new members are brought on at the expected level.
So you know what you need from your members and they are on board - figuratively and literally. The key to ensuring board strength is the ongoing training and formation you provide within your regular meetings, and at the annual retreat. The retreat is also an excellent opportunity to review board member expectations so no one forgets or gets off track. You can also use this function as an opportunity for those who might want (or need) to bring their membership to an end, to do so earlier than your terms of office would dictate.
To gauge your members continued participation, you can include a response card with options such as the following:
- I fully understand the board expectations and am delighted to renew my membership.
- At this time I elect to limit my involvement to committee membership only.
- At this time I choose to conclude my service to the board but will continue to provide my prayerful support.
Boards are dynamic and ever changing, ideally in ways that best serve those entrusted to your care. While you are always encouraging your leadership to become more impactful, remember to celebrate your success along the way. Good luck!