Round Up the Usual Suspects…NOT!

30 04 2009

Populating Your Board III: Round up the Usual Suspects…NOT!

Ever notice how a social gathering is richer when there are people with different backgrounds in the mix? Conversations flow about all the different experiences and talents in the room.

The same thing is true for a board. But when it comes time to fill vacancies, too many boards only reach out to people they’re already comfortable with. What does that mean for the organization? Well, it means that you’re leaving an enormous amount of talent untapped. It means that changing the groupthink of the board is that much harder. It’s not a good idea to stagnate in the best of times. In challenging times, it could be a death knell.

OK. So now you have a grid with all the types of people you need on your board (see April 26 post “Too Many Lawyers”). How do you find new people without tapping just the usual suspects? Again, a systematic approach works, aided by serendipity.

  • First, recognize that finding new board members is an ongoing process. Waiting until it’s time for nominations is way too late. Just like cultivating new donors by bringing them along the path of interested party to small donor to major donor, by the time nominations rolls around, you should have cultivated several people as possible nominees to fill the vacancies.
  • Next, if there isn’t already one in your organization, create a nominating committee/board development committee. This is the group that will filter through the people that emerge in the process, and reach out to prospective directors during the course of the year. They’re also the ones who should be tasked with training your board in all the things they need to know and be able to do.
  • Now, engage your board and upper level staff. Get buy-in by carefully introducing the concept of building your board systematically, making each of them aware of the holes you are trying to fill and why.
  • Arm your ambassadors with exciting information about your organization, and guidance on how to engage others in conversations about your organization. Of course, this is something they should have no matter what – that’s how you spread the word about your good works and gain potential supporters.
  • Encourage your board members to talk about the organization, not just about their profession and family. Whether they are meeting new people at a cocktail party, a concert, in the grocery store, at a parent-teacher meeting, there are almost always opportunities to start a conversation about your group. “Right now I’m working with this amazing organization that helps homeless people get off the streets and reenter society!” “The organization I’m involved in gives at-risk kids books to own.” These are great conversation starters. They encourage the other person to ask, “how interesting, tell me about it!” Really…think about it. Isn’t that a lot more interesting than the typical, “so, what do you do?” “I’m a lawyer,” exchange?
  • Now explore a further relationship. Your ambassadors should know what options are available for engaging this new person. The board development committee should be informed of this potential interest, and suggest ways to engage. Perhaps offer a tour of the facility or to send her some literature. Give his name to your outreach staff, to invite him to a program. During the course of the year, learn about his background and talents. If it’s someone of interest, start the conversation about potentially joining the board.

How does this differ from the old boys’ or girls’ network? The key is to view every encounter with a new person as a potential source for fresh thinking on your board. Your board members may have met this person at a cocktail party held by a friend, but it’s someone new. They may have met at their child’s school, but it’s not someone they see all the time.

One more thing. While your board is looking outside their circle of friends, take a good look at your donors.  Consistent donors are people who are invested in your organization. They care about your cause. Pick up the phone and call them; take them out for coffee; engage them in your vision. Consistent donors make good prospects for your board. See what they can offer besides dollars.

Is there anything wrong with including people from the old boys’ network in this process? Not really. But if that’s the only place you look, then you’re doing your organization a severe disservice. And really, you’re also doing all those unengaged people a disservice as well. Just think of all the people who miss the opportunity to help your wonderful organization!




Too many lawyers?

26 04 2009

Populating Your Board II: Too Many Lawyers?

Now you have a good idea of what your board should be able to do as a whole: determine Direction, set Policy, provide Oversight, and Fundraise. But what about the specific talents you need?  

What wisdom should they have? What work should they know how to do? If all you have are one kind of constituent represented, how do you know that the policy and direction you set will be acceptable to all the different stakeholders? If they’re all lawyers, how do you know you’re setting good financial or technology policy? 

Filling vacancies on your board is too important to leave to chance. It should be a systematic process engaged in by many minds. Create a committee of your board and have your Executive Director join you; maybe your Director of Development, as well. Together, begin the process by figuring out who has a stake in your organization’s success.

 What this means is, who cares what you do and how you do it, and are these groups important to your organization? For example, your clients are a likely stakeholder group. In a food bank, that may be a food recipient; in a school, that may be the students (or their parents). Other stakeholders are less apparent. In a university based social/religious organization I once served, we decided our constituents were students, alumni, parents, faculty/administration, community members, and clergy. For long-term viability and relevance, we needed people in each decade of life – 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, etc. So we determined that as much as possible, individuals from each of these groups should be represented in our board mix. Having this mix allowed each set of stakeholders to feel that they had a say in our policy and direction, and that their point of view was being heard.

 But again, if all of those stakeholders are lawyers, how do you know you’re setting good financial, human resources or technology policy? That’s when the committee and ED take a good, hard look at all the different kinds of decisions the board and executive have to make, and determine what kind of expertise you need to have on the board to make those decisions and provide oversight for their execution?

Do you have to make IT decisions? It would help to have an IT person on board. Do you have to make fiscal policy? A CPA will help. Do you have personnel decisions to make? Look for Human Resources expertise. And despite my kidding around, yes, you should have a lawyer on the board. Then look at your board and see where there are holes.

Here’s an easy way to start; open up an Excel spreadsheet and make a grid. Down the left hand column, list all the expertise you’d like to have on your board, and all the different stakeholder groups you can think of.  Next, across the top of the sheet, in each column, list the name of a board member. Go down each column, and put an ‘X’ in each constituency and each expertise that particular board member can represent. Two-fers are good! A 50 year-old alumna who is a parent and also a marketing expert is a bonus. A 40 year-old community member CPA who conducts IT audits as part of his firm’s consulting practice is a nice plus.

Now, look for the holes. What expertise and constituents are you missing? Using this rough grid, you’ve made a start on figuring out the kinds of people you should seek out to join your board.

Will remaking your board happen in a single election cycle? Of course not. But by being systematic about the process, your ED and each member of the board can keep an eye out for likely prospects and your nominating committee will have good direction. When nominating time comes, your committee will have a way to think about whether an individual who is passionate about your cause can also bring something fresh to the board.

Of course, there are still some things that remain to be considered. How do you reach beyond the usual suspects? How do you go beyond the old girls’ network to find truly new people to consider? Stay tuned…that’s another post!  

Populating your Board of Directors I

22 04 2009

 What should your board members be able to do?

A lot of nonprofit organizations don’t appear to systematically consider who should be on their boards and how to go about getting them. Since entire workshops are conducted on this topic, I started to write an overview. It still turned into a longer post than I anticipated, so here’s Part I. “What should your prospective board members be able to do?”  More in subsequent posts!

How do you populate your board of directors? There’s always the old girls’ (or old boys’) network. That’s worked in the past, or at least you were comfortable with the people you brought on. It’s hard to argue with past success.

But I’m going to argue anyway.  

Classic wisdom says that seeking new board members is a case of looking for the 3 Ts: Time, Talent and Treasure, or the 3Ws: Work, Wisdom and Wealth. Each board member should have at least 2 of the 3, and the board mix should have all three well represented. It is true, many boards do a good job of looking for those three characteristics as they seek new directors among their friends.

However, to really have an effective board, you need a more systematic approach. Fundamentally, you need to find people who understand and care about the mission. But beyond that, they also need to understand and fulfill the major roles of a nonprofit board of directors: Direction, Policy, Oversight and Fundraising.

In terms of Direction, you need forward looking people who can think top level, in order to direct the organization to fulfilling its mission in the future. Sure, there are people who have been with the organization since it began 40 years ago, and having historical perspective is helpful. But understand that the world changes and your organization will also change. That glorious past is prologue…what was, isn’t necessarily what should be now or in the future. Your prospective directors need the ability to understand where you are now and work together to provide direction for the future.

Setting Policy is the second aspect of board responsibilities. The Executive Director is hired to be the Chief Executive Officer. It is the board that sets the policies that the ED executes. What should be the policy on security, on personnel, on finances, on client care, on community relations? Your prospective directors should include people with a wide variety of experience in all the different areas of operation, in order to set sensible policies for execution, and be in-house resources to the ED for setting guidelines.

Concurrent with setting Policy is Oversight. Once you set Policy and hire the Executive Director, the board must make sure that those policies are being executed properly. Just like commercial corporations such as Enron, Bank of America, and others of their ilk, the boards of directors of nonprofits organizations are enjoined to oversee their operations, and make sure that their policies are properly enforced. There is a reason nonprofit boards need Directors & Officers insurance – the Directors and Officers are ultimately responsible for the operations of the nonprofit. As with setting Policy, prospective directors should include people with experience in all the different areas of operation, so they can provide proper Oversight of each area.

Now we come to Fundraising. Raising funds is paramount to a nonprofit organization. In fact, when you ask some people what the role of a nonprofit board is, many will say, “Fundraising,” and stop there. No matter how much good will your directors have towards your mission, unless you have the dollars available to execute that mission, you will fold. While prospective directors may have deep pockets themselves, they cannot and should not be asked to carry the entire burden on their backs.  This means that as you seek new directors, you must find those who understand their roles as chief cheerleaders and fundraisers for your mission.

Contemplating your current board of directors, consider whether each member understands each of these roles, and consciously accepts them. Whether you need to replace directors or fill vacancies, the next step is finding new directors who can fulfill these roles. Broadening your search to get the best possible talent pool means thinking strategically. How do you determine which skills you need on your board? How do you find the people who have these skills? How do you entice them to make your organization a priority?  That’s  fodder for another post

Getting on Board

17 04 2009

I recently was asked, “When you want to serve on a nonprofit board, how do you find the right one? What a great question!  Here in the nonprofit field, I often work with boards that have been bringing people to the table just because they’re friends. But there are much better ways to populate nonprofit boards…(fodder for another post! )

But if you’re looking to give back to society, and think you want to be on a board, that’s a very sophisticated dilemma. A lot of times, people end up on nonprofit boards for well-meaning but not so thoughtful reasons. Maybe a friend asked you. Or you’ve volunteered there in the past . Or maybe it’s a career move — you want to get close to someone else who’s already on that board.

 Of course, you may get lucky following one of these methods, but taking some clear steps should give you a better chance at a great, helpful, and above all, meaningful experience. It’s just like finding a new job. You don’t just broadcast your resume and see what sticks; you do your homework to find the right job for your talent and place in life.

 The 3 Ts nonprofits look for in their board members are: Time, Talent and Treasure. That is, time to give, talent they can use, and treasure they can donate. Maybe you’ve heard of the 3 Ws…Work, Wisdom, and Wealth. Good boards look for at least 2 of the 3 when the time comes to fill open board positions. In all fairness, if you want to be on a board, you should expect to have at least 2 of the 3 to give to the organization. And the way to be happy doing that is by making sure you’ve made the best match for your passions and talent.

 Yes, passion. The first question to ask yourself is what are you passionate about?? Hunger? Education? Animals? Homeless? Substance Abuse? A particular medical condition? One way to start determining your passion is to take a look through your checkbook, and see where you send money. Not because your friend is running a marathon and needs a sponsor, not because the local public radio station has a pledge drive, and not because of guilt, but what tugs on your heartstrings or sense of righteousness enough to tug on your wallet? Are there particular types of causes that you automatically respond to? What makes you write letters to the editor or to the government?

 Next is scope. Decide whether you’re interested in local, regional, national or global efforts. Do you want to be able to walk into a building or park and see the results of your efforts? Or do you want to know you’ve made a difference in a large number of peoples’ lives, even if it’s half a world away Where do you want to make an impact?

 Then investigate. Once you’ve narrowed down the cause and scope, do a little research. Make that a lot of research. Who’s doing work in that field in your area? There are thousands of nonprofits. Ask your friends and coworkers who they know is doing good things in this field; maybe they’re already volunteering at an agency you’d be interested in.

 Call the local United Way, and talk to someone there. Or Catholic Charities. Or the Jewish Federation. Or the local community foundation. Or your clergy. Ask which agencies THEY know of that are doing good things in your chosen cause, and could use your talents.

 Take your time to do this research. Talk to people. Go onto agency websites. Read their form 990s (try to find these nonprofit IRS filings). As you narrow them down, pick up the phone and talk to people at the agencies.

 The next step is sit down for a chat. Let the agencies’ Presidents and/or Executive directors know that you might be interested in helping them, and have a long talk. Don’t COMMIT yet. Do your due diligence. It’s one thing to want to help straighten out a struggling nonprofit that’s having trouble making payroll; it’s entirely another thing to get on the board of an agency and THEN find out it’s a struggling nonprofit that’s having trouble making payroll.

 I’m definitely speaking from experience there!!

 Finally…make the match!

 Yes, it’s time consuming, but definitely worth it. By doing your homework, you’re much more likely to be committed to your cause and willing to put in the time and talent and treasure that will make a difference. You know what you’re getting into. And most importantly, you’ll be giving back to your community and the world.

 Good luck! And let me know how it goes!

If not now, when?

16 04 2009

With 26 years in the for-profit world and 7 years  in the nonprofit sector, I see a lot of overlap…and several differences.  I’ve spent time working for divisions of large corporations and consulting to companies from start-ups to Fortune 500 leaders. I’ve been a researcher, a writer, a public speaker, a fundraiser, a marketer, a planner and an educator. I’ve managed paid staff, volunteers, and public perceptions. 

All these skills are needed by both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

More than 2000 years ago, the famous Rabbi Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when? 

The for-profit world thinks: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

The not-for-profit world thinks: If I am only for myself, then what am I?

Now is when we will put these two together, and see how to learn from each other.