How Do Great Nonprofit Execs Leverage the Talents of their Board Members?
Updated: Jan 15
Nonprofit execs are some of the smartest, most innovative, courageous, and determined people on the planet.
They not only attempt to make the impossible happen; a touch of insanity causes them to commit to running a corporation where profits alone aren’t (and will never be) enough to keep the doors open.
Being a nonprofit exec means mastering the art of twirling spinning plates on sticks in a balancing act of overseeing mission, vision, staff, programs, outcomes, income/expenses, compliance, strategy and a whole bunch of other stuff.
So, you’d think that nonprofit execs would need and want some FREE outside help.
Yet many don’t know how to make the best use of their Board members.
This, my friends, stems primarily from common problems of:
Being a control freak/having a Messiah complex (only I can save the world!)
Believing that staff alone have “real” expertise
Seeing Board members primarily as ATM’s
Not knowing how to incorporate the energy, intelligence, and good-will of dedicated volunteers
Let’s assume that you’ve recruited Board members who are smart, care, and have networks that are useful to your organization (if not, please read this blog which describes how to do that).
Even if you have recruited a “good” Board (i.e., they show-up and do what they’re told) you may not be making the best use of them.
Here are some concrete strategies for addressing this opportunity.
1. Know your strategic priorities.
I read a lot of strategic plans that have no strategy.
They instead talk about goals and tactics that are enumerated in a series of endless columns and lists.
To quote Ann Latham “The biggest problem with the way organizations think about strategy, is that they confuse strategy with plans.”
Strategy evolves through a thorough analysis of the environment and circumstances in which your organization operates. It includes a deep dive into your purpose for being and how well you are doing at meeting your mission.
A strategy positions your organization to get from where you are right now to where you want to go. (For more on that, read this blog post on why strategy is like a shark.)
2. Organize your Board according to your needs.
Once you’ve figured out your strategy, you can determine how to deploy your Board to help move the needle.
Some of your Board members are great with finance or compliance issues (the fiduciary stuff) others are great networkers and, among those, some have the ability to help you figure out how to leverage what you do more effectively (for example, by collaborating with other organizations, approaching your work in new ways, accessing new types of resources).
Take some time to figure out how to organize your Board so that the strength of each Board member is deployed in the most productive way possible to advance your strategy.
Board members with similar skills sets can work efficiently on assigned tasks (most likely, as part of working committees).
3. Be deliberate in how you co-lead Board committees.
Just yesterday, a friend – a marketing whiz who sits on the Board of a well-respected social service agency – told me that she was asked to design a holiday fundraising campaign for her agency, only later to find out that the staff had developed all of the collateral material without her input.
This wasn’t the first time that this type of thing had happened but it was the last for that Board member.
Just hearing about that waste of time and talent makes me want to tear out my curly hair!
Strategic Board work can only happen in coordination with senior staff.
Key staff and committee members must agree in advance on:
The scope of duties for a particular committee
The kind of advice and assistance the staff need from those committee members
The tasks that volunteers are being asked to accomplish
Finally, no matter how much you are tempted to say “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work;” don’t.
Sharpen your listening skills.
It’s possible that Board members have new strategies for approaching things that haven’t worked in the past.
If you don’t ask, and listen to the answers, you may be missing opportunities to advance your work.
Pat Libby is a San Diego based management consultant to nonprofits and philanthropies. She has helped numerous organizations reimagine their Boards.
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