first Board of Directors

If there’s one thing that can drag down a small nonprofit, it’s a broken Board, especially when it’s your nonprofit’s first Board of Directors.

Maybe you’ve been there – busting your can to grow your small nonprofit and you’ve got Board members who don’t show up, don’t want to lift a finger to help, or even worse, try to micromanage you.

It’s a recipe for disaster, plus it’s frustrating as heck when your Board is supposed to be helping, not cause extra work for you!

I hear a LOT of complaints about Boards from Founders, especially those with new nonprofits. They need help and they expect Board members to step up (as they should).

But often, they don’t. Which leaves Founders hanging, doing all the work themselves, and wondering “Why do I have a Board anyway?”

Working with difficult Board members is one of the top complaints I hear. How many times have we heard the story of the Executive Director and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Board member?

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but let’s face it – your Board can drive you nuts!

And for new nonprofits, your first Board of Directors can truly make or break your organization (and the Founder’s sanity too)!

Let’s look at what it takes to get your Board to do their job, step up to help, and stop causing problems.

The Truth About Nonprofit Boards

Your Board exists to provide leadership for your nonprofit.

It works on paper, but in reality, most small nonprofits have some level of dysfunction with their Board.

first Board of DirectorsHere are some statistics about Boards from research we’ve done on nonprofits that we’ve helped at Get Fully Funded:

  • 25% of small nonprofits do not have more than 5 people on their board (that’s not enough people to get things done, especially if your Board is a working Board).
  • Nearly half don’t have 100% Board giving (meaning some Board members are NOT giving financially to the organization they’re a leader of – what message does THAT send?).
  • 32% have attendance issues (apathy in action – again sends the wrong message and makes it hard to get things done).
  • 32% of Board members don’t respond in a timely fashion (basically ignoring their job as a trustee of the nonprofit).
  • 40% of Board members DON’T participate in fundraising at all (which leaves the responsibility on the Founder and other volunteers).

And here’s the scariest data point of all: 100% of Founders are frustrated at some point in their first year with their Board!

We’re all human, and working with other people is bound to be frustrating at some point. But you need to learn to work with your Board because you’re just one person and can only grow your nonprofit so far by yourself.

When a Board does its job and individual Board members are engaged, it’s a beautiful thing!

It’s fun, people look forward to the meetings, they’re getting things done in between meetings, and they’re helping to raise money. Everyone is rowing in sync and the boat moves quickly across the water.

So, what does it take to effectively manage your Board when you realize you’re not getting what you want from your Board?

Here are 8 main issues most nonprofits face along with suggestions for handling them.

How to manage your first Board of Directors

Your Board members are volunteers. They aren’t getting paid (or they shouldn’t be!) to serve.

That means that while you expect them to have the same commitment to the organization as you, they may not.

Your job is to give them the tools, training, and support they need to effectively do their job. It’s your job to keep them engaged. It’s your job to provide the structure within which they can work.

After all, you know more about what they’re supposed to do than they do.

So, help them out.

Try to create a Board culture where openness and honesty are valued, and you’ll have less headache and fewer issues to work through.

Here are the most common issues that nonprofit leaders face, along with suggestions for handling them.

  • Board members lack passion and commitment. You’re excited about your nonprofit’s mission, so why aren’t they?

    Maybe you have Board members who were recruited for the wrong reason, like out of desperation or because they are close friends or relatives.

    Maybe you were so passionate that the board member got swept up in your excitement but didn’t consider how much work it would be or whether they would have the means to fulfil the duties.

    Maybe they didn’t understand the role of the Board and didn’t know how to let you know that.

    Or maybe they just aren’t a good fit.

    The best way to address this issue is through an honest, private, face-to-face conversation with the Board member in question to make sure they understand your expectations and are willing to recommit themselves to their role.

    Remember that Board members have lives and their personal, work, or health concerns may be interfering with their ability to do their job. Maybe it’s just for a short season or maybe they need to take a leave of absence from the Board to deal with these issues.

    If you’re having problems with the Board as a whole, figure out why.

    Is your Board bored? Do you get so bogged down in discussions of operations and financials that your Board has lost the thread of your vision?

    Take the time to play detective and figure out how to keep your Board engaged and excited about your nonprofit’s work.

  • You don’t feel comfortable telling Board members what to do. As a Founder, you probably didn’t start a nonprofit so you could be someone’s manager.

    Maybe you’ve never had any experience managing people or volunteers so you aren’t sure what to do.

    It’s easy to see your first Board of Directors as authority figures and telling your bosses they aren’t doing their job is the LAST thing you want to do!

    Maybe you have the idea that they are supposed to tell YOU what to do.

    As Executive Director, you are responsible for day to day operations, managing staff, and running programs. You are there where the rubber meets the road, seeing that your mission is fulfilled through your work.

    Your Board is responsible for big-picture issues like long-range planning and managing the finances.

    Ideally, there should be a partnership between the Board and the Executive Director with an equal share of power, authority, and responsibility.

    While they are there to lead and guide, the truth is that you know more about running a nonprofit than they do, so it falls on you to teach them how to do their job.

    Some days, that means gently telling them what to do or getting them some training so they can understand what they’ve said “yes” to.

  • Some Board members don’t understand what their role is. How can you get Board members to do their job? Well, start by treating them like an employee.

    Make sure they have a job description that outlines their roles and responsibilities as well as your expectations for them. It’s tough for people to do a job when no one is clear about what they job entails.

    In some cases, you’ll have to treat them like the worst employee you ever had. Seriously, what do you do when an employee doesn’t do their job? You give them clear steps and accountability to help them get their job done. You set clear expectations and parameters, then follow up to make sure they do what they say they’ll do. And you may have to do this with some Board members to make sure they understand what they’re supposed to do and have the support to get it done.

    It’s best to set expectations from the first conversation you have with a potential Board member, then reinforce those expectations often. Hold an orientation before the first Board meeting and remind everyone what their job is and the expectations they need to meet.

    Even better, put their job description and expectations in writing and have them sign it when they join the Board. You might even have the WHOLE BOARD sign a new copy every year in January just as a reminder of what they should be doing.

    A little bit of training and frequent reminders about what their job is (and isn’t) can prevent a lot of problems later.

  • Board members won’t step into leadership roles. Someone on your first Board of Directors must step up to be President or Chair of the group. And sometimes it’s really hard to get members to commit to leadership roles.

    Why is this so hard?

    Ask yourself this: Have you recruited people with leadership skills? If not, that could be why no one wants to step up.

    Is everyone clear about what the leadership job entails and how much time it will take? If people aren’t clear about what it will be like to be “in charge” they could shy away from it.

    Are you leaving room for leadership to develop? Providing space for leaders to emerge and maybe even some training or coaching can help people be more willing to step up.

    Think about the culture you want on your Board and who will be the best person to help create that culture. If your Board members consistently criticize but offer no solutions, it’s no wonder why no one would want the leadership job!

    Think about how you’re developing people for leadership roles. Some Boards elect a Vice President with the understanding that next year they will take over as President. It gives that person a year to learn and figure out what kind of leader they want to be. And it’s a good way for you to know you’ve got a leader next year!

    Finally, if there’s no one who will step up, you may need to recruit someone to join the Board for the purpose of filling the leadership role.

  • New Board members are hard to find. When you’re creating your first Board of Directors, or replacing Board members, you need to take the recruitment process seriously. You don’t want just anyone with a pulse – that’s called “warm body syndrome” and leads to lots of problems later.

    Start by figuring out what skills you need to grow your nonprofit to the next level. Then go find people to serve on your board.  You probably need people with expertise in accounting, marketing, public awareness, business, and fundraising. What else would you add to this list for YOUR Board?

    As you brainstorm a list of candidates for your Board, consider current volunteers and donors. You already know that they are on your team and excited about what you’re doing! They could make great Board members because they’re already invested in the nonprofit’s success.

    Brainstorm with a few key people who know lots of people. They may know of someone in the community who would be a great fit for your Board.

    Sometimes, you can find potential Board members with help from the United Way or the local Chamber of Commerce but be careful about choosing people who serve on many other Boards; they’re already spread too thin and may not have much time or attention to give to your nonprofit.

    Finally, don’t forget about places like LinkedIn, young professional groups, or civic clubs as sources for potential Board member candidates.

  • Difficult Board members are hard to remove. Sometimes people aren’t a good fit and then sometimes they purposefully cause trouble. Either way, there are two parts to removing a problematic Board member.

    The first is to know when the Board member has crossed the line and needs to be removed. The second is to know how to remove the problem Board member.

    If you have a Board member who is consistently rude, bullies others, tries to micromanage the staff or director, simply never shows up, or who is damaging the reputation of your organization, you need to take action.

    The first line of defense is a personal conversation initiated by the Board President. If the Board member does not change their behavior, it’s time to show them the door using a “bless and release” strategy. Thank them for their service and let them know it’s no longer productive for the nonprofit for them to remain on the Board.

    If the situation is not an emergency, for instance if the behavior is not causing issues with your organization’s reputation, fundraising, or damaging others, you might consider releasing them when their term is up. That may take some time and if that is not an option, you can vote them off the Board using the process outlined in your bylaws.

    While removing a Board member can be painful, allowing someone to remain and demoralize the team, impede progress, or derail the vision of your nonprofit is not acceptable.

  • Leveraging a Board’s connections is difficult. Your Board can be a great source for finding new donors, volunteers, and supporters. But how do you get them to share these connections with you?

    Sometimes, Board members are nervous about mixing their personal and business lives. They may worry that they will lose friends if they ask for donations or maybe asking for support makes them uncomfortable.

    The good news is that there are some things you can do to make it easier for them to open up their Rolodex (you youngsters may have to look that up!).

    Start by asking Board members to do something that is very low risk that they can easily say “yes” to then build into something harder like asking them to ask their friends for donations.

    Depending on the Board member, it may be easier to ask them for the names and then YOU make the ask. For others, asking them to introduce you to their connections will work.

    If you have a fun event that Board members can invite friends, family, and business associates to, they can introduce those connections to your nonprofit that way.

    Whatever way you choose to go, give Board members a script with bullet points so they know exactly what to say. Be sure to equip them with a good story so they can let people know how what you do impacts the world.

    When they do help bring new people to your organization, make sure to treat their friends and business connections well. Offer private tours, meet and greets, and otherwise make the people they introduce you to feel special.

    Be sure to express appreciation both to their connections and to the Board member who introduced you because if everyone has a good experience, it paves the way for more connections!

  • nonprofit board membersYou don’t have 100% Board giving. Regardless of if it’s your first Board of Directors or your 50th, your Board members are leaders of your organization and set the tone for everyone else to follow. If they aren’t willing to make a financial contribution to the nonprofit they lead, how do you expect anyone else to give?

    Everyone on your Board should be giving a gift of some amount and the amount is up to them, although I would hope this would be one of their top charitable gifts.

    Some grant funders require 100% Board giving. Many savvy major donors expect it.

    So, how do you achieve this minor miracle?

    First, set the expectation for giving up front. In your conversations with potential Board members, tell them they’ll be expected to donate to your organization.

    Try running a Board giving campaign in January every year, giving everyone a pledge card and an envelope for their donation for the year.

    Take each Board member to lunch individually and ask them for a donation. It’s good practice for you to get face-to-face with people to ask for bigger donations!

    Just be purposeful about it. Don’t expect your Board members to remember they’re supposed to give because most won’t. Gently remind them and make it easy for them to give. 

The Bottom Line

 Managing your first Board of Directors is important to the future of your nonprofit. This group of people will set the tone for future Boards to follow.

The good news is that you can give them the guidance they need to become the Board you want (you might even be able to turn them into a fundraising Board!). Set clear expectations and make sure that you keep lines of communication open between meetings. Treat them like the valuable volunteers they are. And thank them when they do their job well.

Take the time and effort to figure out how to manage YOUR Board and you will have long-term partners for your mission!

Additional Resources

Why the First Board of Directors for your Nonprofit is so Important

Setting up your Nonprofit’s Board of Directors

How to leverage your nonprofit board’s donor network