I have a theory about nonprofit Boards. Most small nonprofits have people on their Boards who don’t understand what they’ve said “yes” to. They don’t know what they’re supposed to do as a Board member, and in the absence of knowledge, they do whatever looks fun or familiar.
That leaves the door wide open for them to get too involved in the day-to-day operations and micromanage, or step too far back and do absolutely nothing, placing way too much trust in the staff to make everything work. Neither scenario is healthy for the organization and can lead to a number of problems, which impede the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.
All the while, the staff is looking to Board members to help them move the nonprofit forward, expecting them to help raise money, lead strategic planning, and lots more things that Boards are supposed to do.
The problem is that the staff usually knows more about what a Board is supposed to do than the Board does. And if you think about it, it makes sense. Staff members typically attend way more trainings and workshops than Board members do. They read newsletters and blogs. And they have a greater understanding of their role versus the Board’s role.
It’s easy to forget that most Boards simply haven’t had the chance to learn about their job. And they don’t know what they don’t know.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. Educate them.
If your Board doesn’t know what their job is, you’ve got to teach them. You probably know more about what they need to do than anyone else, so it’s up to you to get the ball rolling.
People aren’t suddenly endowed with knowledge just because they say “yes” to being on a Board. Stop expecting them to know everything they need to know to do their job. Most people want to do the right thing, but if they don’t know what that is, there’s the potential for problems, miscommunication, and more.
Don’t blame them, shame them, or guilt them. Just help them understand their role and set them up for success.
I remember playing the blame game with my Board when I was a Development Director. I’d attend workshops where the presenter would tell us that our Board should be helping with fundraising. Then I’d go back and expect Board members to rise to the occasion. What I didn’t understand was that they didn’t know how. Some of them were flat out scared to ask anyone for money, and most of them were resistant to the idea.
So, how do you get your Board on board? Here are four simple steps to engaging your Board:
- Get them some training. One day a year spent in learning or refreshing themselves about their job can be a day very well spent. If you can’t carve out a whole day, spend 10 minutes at each Board meeting going over one of their basic roles.
- Inspire them. Share with them some heart-warming stories about the lives that are being changed by the work your nonprofit is doing. Don’t assume they already know. If they only show up to a monthly Board meeting, they’re likely to forget a lot in between those meetings. Help them remember.
- Treat your Board as individuals. Think of them and work with them one at a time. When you think of them as a group, it’s easy to generalize, which doesn’t help anything. Remember: One size does NOT fit all! This is why you won’t get 100% response when you ask your Board to sell tickets to your event. Not everyone feels comfortable doing it and when people lack confidence in their ability to do a task, they won’t do it.
- Work in baby steps. Give them small tasks to complete instead of big projects. Even though they are the leaders of your nonprofit, they are volunteers and may not have large amounts of time to give you. Ask them to complete small tasks and you’ll be much more likely to get the result you want.
It’s easy to get impatient or resentful toward your Board. You look to them for leadership and guidance, and chances are good they will disappoint you from time to time. Just remember that you can accept the current situation and be frustrated with your Board, or you can take steps to change it.