Your Board exists to provide leadership for your nonprofit.
Whether you have a working Board, a governing Board or something in between, your Board is meant to fill some key roles for your organization.
Individual Board members have the responsibility to bring their time, talent, and treasure to the table, to benefit the organization.
They’re there to make a difference personally and together with their fellow Board members, to ensure the success of the nonprofit and its programs.
Leading your Board are officers, led by a Board Chair or Board President, which is a key role in any nonprofit. This person sets the tone for the rest of the Board through their leadership style.
A year with a good Board Chair can be fun and productive. A year with a Board Chair with little to no leadership skill can be frustrating and downright painful.
The big challenge is finding the RIGHT person to take the job of Board President.
But what do you do when there’s no obvious candidate? When you have a group of followers and no one wants to be in charge? When it’s time to elect officers but no one is interested in the job?
It’s a crappy situation to be in.
For staff and founders, it feels like Board members aren’t bought in to the mission, because if they were, they’d be willing to step up.
For Board members, it feels like a LOT of additional responsibility and time that they just don’t have to give.
So, what do you do when no one wants the critical job of Board President?
If you’re in a pinch and you need someone to step up to be President RIGHT NOW, you may not like this, but you have to slow down to go faster. If you hurry to fill the spot, you risk picking the wrong person and you’ll be out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Do what you need to do to give yourself a little time to put a better process in place and find someone who can lead your organization well. If that means that the current President needs to serve an extra year (or maybe even just 6 months) so you have time to find a great next Board Chair, do that. If that means you get 2 people to serve as Co-Chairs, do that (I don’t like this solution, but I’ve seen it work in a pinch on occasion).
Hit the ‘pause’ button long enough to find someone with enough leadership skill to get things moving in the right direction. Otherwise, you’ll stay stuck in this wasteland of no leadership.
There are a few things you need in place to create an environment for leadership to thrive.
Start by creating space for leaders to step up.
That means you need to let your Board do their job. Let them take on responsibility and wrestle with decisions. It builds their experience and creates buy-in which they need in order to be willing to give their precious time to serving as a leader.
When YOU are always the one with the plan or the answers, they’ll quickly fall into the habit of looking to you for everything. They’ll stop offering suggestions and stop adding their ideas to the conversation. You start feeling like the Lone Ranger and they start feeling un-needed.
When this happens, they see YOU as the leader with no room for anyone else to provide leadership. If you’re a founder or an Executive Director and you want a partnership with your Board, you must be willing to share the leadership role with your Board, your Board leaders, and especially your Board Chair.
What does that mean?
It means that you need to slow down long enough to think and answer these questions:
- HOW you will work together with your Board and Board Chair?
- What do you want that partnership to look like?
- How do you want it to work?
- What will it be like when it works well?
The hardest thing, especially for control freaks, is to refrain from jumping in and doing things yourself when you see them start to flounder. If that’s you, you have to stop.
Don’t jump in to save Board members if things aren’t going the way you want. This is really hard when you’re the founder and the nonprofit is your baby. When you swoop in to save them, you’re showing them that they don’t really have any responsibility and that you’re always there to save the day. They’ll start to feel like they don’t matter, and they’ll drift away, becoming less and less interested until they finally stop showing up.
So, make room for other people to help you lead.
Once you’ve created space and you understand what you want your working relationship to be, it’s time to set clear expectations.
Create and use a job description for your Board leaders. Outline exactly what they’ll be doing and what they’re responsible for. Be clear about the time commitment for each role so your leadership prospects know what they’re getting into. It’s very frustrating to a Board member to say “yes” to a leadership role, then find themselves doing WAY MORE work than they thought they were going to do. Clarity up front can prevent this problem.
Once your job descriptions are in place, it’s time to recruit Board leaders.
Don’t just ask at a meeting “Who wants to be President?” You’re almost guaranteed to hear crickets.
Instead, identify those on your Board who you think have the skill and qualities you’re looking for and take them to coffee to talk about their interest in stepping into a Board leadership role. It’s time consuming, but individual conversations will ultimately be more productive in finding the best possible candidate, making sure they understand what they’re saying “yes” to.
If you find that current Board members aren’t a good fit, go recruit a new Board member who has the leadership skills your nonprofit needs. It’s not always the best idea to recruit a new Board member and immediately make them President, but if that’s what your nonprofit needs, then do it.
Look for new Board members who may have been President of their Rotary Club or served as an officer of their garden club. They’ll have the kind of group leadership experience you’re looking for.
Also think about the characteristics you need in that Board leader so you get what you’re looking for. Do you want someone who is a strong leader and what they says goes, or do you want an inclusive leader who strives for consensus? Do you want someone who engages other Board members in each meeting and creates a culture where asking questions is encouraged? Or do you want someone who focuses on ending the meeting on time, no matter what?
The important thing is to give yourself time and be purposeful about the specific leadership skills you’re looking for so you don’t have to settle for less than what your nonprofit needs.
Differences when you have staff or don’t
Whether or not you have staff can impact a potential leader’s decision to step up. The quality of your staff can also impact the decision.
In an all-volunteer nonprofit, the day-to-day work often falls on Board members to complete. That’s usually a LOT for someone to take on who wasn’t a founder or an early volunteer of the organization. Potential leaders may want to ask lots of questions about who does what and if anyone will be providing support. If you expect your Board Chair to function as the defacto Executive Director, be clear about that, and know that you may have a really hard time finding someone to take that on – it sounds like a big job!
Organizations with professional staff usually have an easier time of recruiting and raising leaders on their Board, simply because there’s someone to default
to when it’s time to get things done.
Either way, be clear about what kind of administrative support the leaders will get (even if it’s none) and also let them know what kind of peer support they’ll receive. I personally like serving on leadership teams when everyone supports each other. It feels collaborative and it’s more fun!
Biggest obstacles to leadership for Board members
When you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, you can understand them better.
When you understand why a potential leader might hesitate, you may be able to do something about it.
Here are some of the obstacles that can get in the way of someone stepping into a leadership role:
- Looks like too much work or drama. People these days are already over-committed and the thought of taking on something that will be a lot of work is more than most want to bite off. Or if you have more than a small amount of drama in your organization, it can deter potential leaders.
- Looks too time-consuming. Sometimes people will avoid a leadership role because they saw how the last person did it and they don’t want that experience for themselves.
- Lack of understanding. They don’t understand what being a leader of your Board really means. (Here’s where a job description comes in really handy!)
- Last-minute recruitment. The process of nominating officers is done at the last minute and people don’t have time to think about it or get their questions answered.
- No culture of leadership. There’s no culture of leadership on your Board. Leadership isn’t valued or rewarded.
- No authority with the responsibility. They perceive that they can’t really make any change – that they’ll only be a puppet.
I’ve heard it said that we get the Board we deserve. If that’s true and you’re not happy with the Board you have, look at what you’re currently doing to create a positive, thriving culture on your Board.
Implement a few of the suggestions here and you’ll be on your way to making your Board better in no time.