Can we be 100% honest with each other for just a minute?
Working with boards is tricky. It’s frustrating. It often feels like a power struggle with a million buried landmines. There is so much that nonprofit staff wish they could say to board members, but (usually) bite their tongues instead.
For the next few blog posts I want to explore the relationship between nonprofit board and staff, and this first post is going to focus on the pressures and frustrations staffers face in their day-to-day work and the challenges of navigating the relationship with the board.
Don’t worry board members. Turnabout is fair play here and your day in the sun is coming up in my next post.
So without further ado, here’s my unedited, irreverent, things-we-say-in-our-heads list of what staffers wish the board knew.
1. I’m having trouble to getting to everything on my to-do list and when I see your eyes light up at the thought of a new program, I cringe and wonder how we’re going to execute that plan without a mental breakdown.
New programs and ways to serve the community are exciting. You’ll get no argument from me on that one. But when you’re buried neck-deep in all the things that you already do it feels like if one more thing gets added to the pile you may actually drown. Literally. In a pool of your own stress-induced tears.
And if I’m crying from frustration at the number of hours I’m putting in and the lack of traction I’m getting, chances are I’m also not feeling like the best version of myself. So when you propose your new program I might possibly be wishing I could strangle someone. But definitely not you. Never you…..Obviously, the answer isn’t just to never try anything new. That’s not realistic or desirable. So what to do?
Solution for board members:
Talk to staff about what they already have on their plates and their existing time commitments. Be realistic about how much a human can and should work.
When you talk to them about existing programs and plans for new ones, look for opportunities to streamline processes, automate systems, and just generally make things less time-consuming and more efficient.
Perhaps more importantly, look for ways that volunteers and/or board members can be utilized to jump in and take some of the load off staff shoulders.
Be ready to be the first to step up.
Always start these conversations with a verbal recognition that you know staff has a lot to do and you are open to tweaks and changes to your program idea that can make it more do-able and still accomplish the program’s purpose.
2. While we’re on the subject of offering new programs & services, who’s funding that? I wish you helped more with finding money to support all of this.
You and I both know that boards are supposed to give of their own funds to their nonprofits (even if it’s a small contribution) and also pitch in on other fundraising efforts. You and I also both know that sometimes this doesn’t quite happen. And it’s understandable to a degree because most people are terrified of asking others for money and sometimes it’s hard to convince yourself to give monetarily when you already give your time and expertise.
But just because I’m staff doesn’t mean I’m any less anxious about this and the Development Director (if there is one) is still going to the same pool of donors for any new initiatives or projects. So you have to step up. You have to help us reach out to existing donors and find new ones who care about this new program as much as you do.
Grants aren’t always suitable (or available) for every new idea and if I have to single handedly call our donor list to pitch support for this I might just start prank calling you in between talking to each donor. Or send a glitter bomb to your house. I haven’t decided yet.
Before we get too far down this new project road and realize we’re all too broke for an Uber ride back home, let’s look at more practical approaches:
Solution for board members:
Create a planning process and/or template for new programs and projects that includes looking at funding sources and strategies.
If you’re going to create a fundraising campaign, event, or start calling on donors be ready to volunteer as part of this effort. Better yet, start putting together a list of people to call. Bonus if it includes people who would love this project but aren’t current donors. I guarantee if you do this, staff will be HAPPY to pull reports and lists from current donor rolls to beef up what you started.
While you’re at it, maybe create a script other board members and staff can use on the phone when talking with new donors. It helps them know what to say and not be so anxious about asking for money.
Have a Plan B. If fundraising efforts fall short or a grant gets denied, then what? Will the program or project still move forward? How? Knowing what happens “if” will take a burden off staff and let them know that you take the program and the effort they will inevitably put into building and running it seriously.
3. Ask for my opinion. I have valuable input & experience and this whole thing would work better if we were in partnership.
No one likes feeling like someone else’s errand boy, unappreciated and unseen. I’ve been doing this work a while now. I have opinions on what works and what doesn’t and experience to back it up. I may not always be right and of course big-picture opinions are welcome, but for pete’s sake…if it’s something that’s going to affect me and my work at least talk to me about it before you start issuing orders.
Here’s the thing. When you just hand down the final vision of what you want to see happen and walk away, it feels like I’ve been given an order and I’m just a cog in the wheel. I don’t matter and you don’t value my input. Which sucks on a lot of levels, and it’s not even all about me whining about wanting to do less. I might actually be excited about this and have ideas of how to structure it, expand it, or otherwise improve it. But there has to be an actual dialogue for that. And maybe I will find some problems or areas of concern, but that should be ok, too. After all, identifying them in advance could save time and money and that’s something you should care about.
So before I start pretending I never got that email you sent about a fancy new workshop to teach interpretive dance for inner-city ventriloquists, maybe we should look at better approaches…
Solutions for board nembers:
First and foremost, start viewing your work on the board and in your committees as one facet of a partnership with the staff who carry out the mission. This means asking for our opinions and using them in the process of structuring your plans. There are a couple practical ways you can do this:
Have informal conversations with staff and let us know what you’re thinking about and working on.
Invite us to relevant committee meetings so we can participate or call a special meeting both staff and board members are invited to just to talk through your idea.
Create a short survey asking for input on your idea and send it out to staff via email,
Google Forms, or put paper copies on desks/mailboxes.
Check in with us during the implementation process to help us address roadblocks.
Create a process for assessing our efforts collaboratively after the program or project ends (or at whatever point is appropriate to the actual endeavor). This way any shifts or changes get our input and our buy-in.
4. Get to know us.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that at some nonprofit orgs, board members and staff could literally pass each other by on the street and not know they’re affiliated with the same organization. And that just shouldn’t be.
If we are working together towards a common mission shouldn’t we at least be on a first-name basis? I mean, c’mon, it’s common decency. And it makes staff feel heard and valued when you know who we are, what we do, and actually speak to us. Because (again, honesty here) at many orgs it does feel like there’s a class/hierarchy divide between staff and board.
Want to avoid that awkward moment at the next fundraiser where we’re talking to the same patron and get introduced for the first time? Do this instead….
Solutions for board members:
Each FY invite the entire staff to at least one board meeting. This will allow new board members and new staffers to meet and also let every tier of staff feel included in the process. It doesn’t even have to be for the entire meeting. You could do a meet and greet, an overview of things the board is dealing with or considering, do some Q&A or ask for staff feedback on some things, and then let the staff leave. That would go a loooong way down the road of partnership, believe me.
Make a point of talking with staff at events, meetings, or when you just see them out and about. Get to know who they are outside the office and remember to ask about things that are important to their work and who they are.
Have the board send holiday cards to the staff on appropriate dates.
5. Recognize the staff and our work.
Numbers 4 and 5 are really 2 sides of the same coin. If you don’t know us then you definitely aren’t recognizing our contributions and we go back to feeling like cogs in the wheel again. Yuck. Plus everyone likes a pat on the back for a job well done, right? Right. Nonprofit staff are no different.
So if the next development campaign exceeds the goal, you sell out the next concert, or a set of classes ends up with a waiting list of people because demand is so high, here are some things you can do to celebrate these wins with the staff….
Solutions for board members:
Send handwritten cards or notes to staff when they do something exceptional or go above and beyond.
If a staff member(s) is directly responsible for a successful event, make sure to recognize them publically during the event (if possible and appropriate). If not, you can always mention them in a program, on signage, or some other written way. Heck, why not do both?
At the end of each year/season consider throwing a small party for staff to celebrate successes and milestones as a group, with both board members and staff in attendance. Most importantly, don’t make the staff plan the party!
Talk up the accomplishments of your great staff to others in the community (patrons, donors, whoever) even if they aren’t around to hear it. It’s still nice and could be a career boost or an opportunity could open up later to that staff member because of it. They will have you to thank.
That’s it for this one.
Hopefully board members have some new ideas for how to approach the relationship with staff and staff has had a good, cathartic laugh at some of these scenarios. If you want more ideas and insights (or even need to repair a truly damaged staff-board relationship. Yikes.) you know how to get a hold of me.
Stay tuned for my next post where we reverse roles and take out some board member frustrations on our staff. Don’t worry board members…your day is almost here!
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