Alright, board members. It’s your turn!
Now it’s time to turn the tables and let board members vent some frustrations and talk about some of the things they wish staffers knew or did. And in case anyone is wondering, I’m not writing about any of this just to give us all a place to get things off our chests (although, it’s pretty cathartic, right?).
My intent is to improve the vital partnership between board and staff.
Indulge me for a moment and allow me to offer an analogy: rowing. I don’t row, but I think it’s still a good analogy. Say you’re out on the lake in a canoe with your friend Joe. You and Joe really need to get to the other side of the lake. You and Joe have been invited to a party at a super fancy resort over there and for some reason you can only get there via canoe (don’t question it…just stay with me).
But neither of you know how to row a canoe in tandem and you just can’t seem to get your oars in sync. Rather than realizing that you share the same goal and coming up with a plan to get there, you and Joe row in circles for about an hour, miss the party, and eventually overturn the canoe and fall in the lake.
Yikes. Not an ideal outcome right?
The way board and staff works together isn’t much different. If you squabble over little details and get into a power struggle over who is leading this canoe, you’re gonna end up in the lake and miss the whole party. But if you can work together towards the organization’s goals you can absolutely row across that lake and get to the party.
Ok, so with this end in mind, let’s get into the minds of our board members and see what they wish us staffers knew……
#1 – Me and my friends are not ATMs
Yes, I know you want me to fundraise and although I worry about how to do this, I get why I need to do it. No argument there. But there’s a limit, people. I probably can’t give you thousands this year, even if I want to.
And the same goes for my friends and contacts. I’m happy to introduce you and facilitate an ask. But if we go back to them several times in the same year they’re going to start avoiding you and me. Please don’t ruin my friendships and please understand that there’s only so much I can personally give.
Solution: Write up a board member agreement that you can give to all new incoming board members. This agreement should spell out exactly what their responsibilities are in relation to personal giving and assistance with fundraising. This will help them understand expectations right up front. It also means they have it in writing so now it’s your job to stick to it and not ask for lots of extras.
And if you do need to call upon the board for additional help throughout the year (it happens), tell them right up front that you understand and respect that everyone has limits to what they can give and what they can ask others to give. Sometimes an acknowledgement goes a long way towards getting buy-in. This way you’ve taken the pressure off and allowed those who can to step forward for some extra assistance.
#2 – I don’t have unlimited time so for the love of toast please keep meetings brief and don’t expect me to volunteer for everything.
You remember that board meeting last month that was supposed to last an hour but it actually lasted two and a half? You know the one….we talked about the same operational spreadsheet for 45 minutes?
Well . . my spouse didn’t talk to me for three days after that meeting because I missed family dinner and my kid’s soccer game. And then the week after that I was told I had to volunteer for at least 5 evening events this quarter. Yeesh….I wish I had known that when I signed up!
I’m happy to give of my time and I don’t like to skip out on important discussions, but please . . . keep the meetings to their agreed-upon start and end times and make sure the discussions we have are important. If they aren’t moving the needle on our goals and they aren’t giving us information we need to help make informed decisions, then keep it off the agenda. And if you want me to volunteer for stuff, how about giving me lots of notice without an ultimatum?
My marriage and my sanity thank you for your attention to this matter.
Solution: There are a few simple things you can do to address these issues:
- When you’re making your meeting agendas make sure you’re asking yourself if each item is really important for the board to know or weigh in on. Don’t waste their time.
- Set a time limit for each portion of the agenda. And actually stick to it.
- Build in time at the end of the meeting for extra discussion or questions. This gives everyone time to go deeper on hot-button issues without the meeting running over. And if you don’t need it, everyone gets to leave early. Win win.
- Lay out volunteer opportunities and needs as early as possible in the fiscal year, preferably at the first or second meeting. Send around sign-up sheets so they can plan far in advance.
- If an additional volunteer need comes up during the year, don’t wait until the board meeting to bring it up. As soon as you know, send out an email to your board and see if anyone can help. Have a Plan B in case they can’t. (For example, can you use students in need of volunteer credits, patrons, or youth from your education programs?)
#3 – We never talk. Not to sound like a needy spouse over here, but it’s hard to get staff to make time to talk to me so I don’t feel like I know what’s going on.
I’ve called and tried to schedule meetings before to talk through events or programs that are important to me, but no one ever seems to have time or they seem like it’s an inconvenience. I’m not trying to take time away from important tasks, but I don’t think I can fulfill my board duties unless I talk through some of this with the actual people running things.
After two or three asks to meet, I sort of gave up on it. You can come to me if you’re wondering why I’m not very engaged right now.
Solution: For nonprofit staff, the to-do lists only get longer and it’s hard to carve out time for meetings like this without falling further behind. I get it. But you need to do it anyway. Here are my suggestions:
- At the beginning of every month carve out 2 hours somewhere in that month that you are going to make available to talk with board members outside of board and committee meetings. This could mean that you reach out to someone in particular you need to touch base with, or maybe you send out an email to the board and ask if anyone has something they want to discuss or work on with you.
- Ask if board members are getting the communication they need from staff. It’s really that simple
- If some hurt feelings are ingrained from months or years of poor communication, consider sending out an anonymous survey via Google Forms to ask them what their grievances are and how you all can communicate better.
- Same goes with general engagement issues – just ask them what they need to reignite their passion for the organization.
#4 – I want to help. I do. But my ideas get shot down.
Sometimes staff can be, shall we say, “territorial” about their programs and workflow. They don’t always like someone coming in and telling them to change or add things. And that’s understandable, but as a board member I was led to believe that part of my role is to help improve what we do and ensure that we are making progress towards overarching goals. So I tried to do that. I’ve brought up ideas on things we could add to our fundraising strategy, special events, and fun things I think would engage patrons more. And now staff members are avoiding me like I have Ebola.
After the 5th time I tried to bring a great idea to the attention of staff and the 5th time it got shot down, I stopped talking about ideas. I’m a little deflated since I’m passionate about the organization, but I’m not so sure anymore what I’m doing here.
Solution: Ok, staff members. I have to break this one down a bit. It’s HARD to have people give you ideas or marching orders when they don’t understand your day-to-day work or what challenges you’re encountering in the field. But board members are usually only here because they are passionate about the organization and the fastest way to get a disengaged do-nothing board is to shoot down every idea they have. So I’m going to ask you to resist that urge and do this instead:
- Go back to #3 and implement the section where I talked about carving out time to talk to board members
- Look for ways you can streamline or even automate tasks that you already do or that board members are proposing so it isn’t such a time burden on you. (I even have a freebie to help with this!)
- Ask them for help. You can’t be a martyr if they’re volunteering to put some skin in the game
- Put yourself in their shoes. Realize they’re enthusiastic and use that. Also try this trick when looking for better ways to do something a board member has proposed: Instead of saying “yes, but…” and giving an objection, try saying “yes, and…” and then give an alternative suggestion. It’ll get you more buy-in and goodwill and build that partnership.
#5 – We created that killer strategic plan at our last board retreat and it had me all fired up. Now it’s a year later and I can’t see any actual action that’s been taken on it.
This one’s a bummer. We create strategic plans to guide the organization and move it closer to big goals that should be exciting for both board and staff. But all too often, we do the board retreat and then whatever vision, strategy, or action plan we’ve created sits on a shelf, never to see the light of day again.
Oof. That’s deflating for someone who’s enthusiastic about the mission. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Do this instead:
- When the retreat is over, type up all meeting minutes, notes, and action plans. Email the file to board and staff and then put a hardcopy on file in a binder in the office.
- Really and truly schedule time into your actual calendar or planner to work on action step items.
- Send out periodic emails to update board members on progress or talk about it at meetings. Ask for help as needed with complicated items.
- Create a goal tracker and share it via Google docs with everyone so they can all share in the progress and see where help or insight might be needed. (And wouldn’t you know it….I have a goal tracker all set up for you, too).
Ok. That’s it for this one. Next up on the blog I’ll be looking at yearly evaluation strategies for board and staff. I’ll talk about why that’s important and give you a how-to guide for doing it right.