Nonprofit Board of Directors – Is Yours Apathetic? 5 Common Problems and How to Solve Them

Despite varying sizes, maturities, and purposes, many nonprofit organizations suffer from boards that are too passive or disengaged. If your Nonprofit Board of Directors isn’t enthusiastic about their role and the work of the organization, the organization cannot possibly reach its full potential.

Often board members witness the symptoms of their malaise but can’t articulate the root causes and are unable to offer solutions. Step back from your board of directors for a moment and read through the list of problems, below. Are you familiar with these complaints? Can you imagine stepping through the solutions provided? Are there other steps you could take to invigorate your passive board?

Send this article to members of your board today and start talking about possible solutions.

PROBLEM ONE Mission Scope Creep Over time, we’ve started to do too much for too many people. We aren’t sure any more what our priorities are and where we should focus our time. Things fall through the cracks and the staff is overloaded.

RECOMMENDATION Chances are that you are spread too thin. Maybe some of your programs are not being well-managed. Conversations need to take place with key board and staff personnel. Make a complete list of all of your programs. Decide on the focus of your organization. Make sure you have the resources to manage these programs well. Drop some projects or programs if necessary.

PROBLEM TWO Staff and Board are Out of Synch The board is working on some things, the staff is working on other things, but one hand doesn’t really know what the other is doing. Sometimes we just seem out of control.

RECOMMENDATION Stop and assess what the staff is doing and what each of the board committees is doing. Assign staff members to appropriate board committees. Design an Executive Director Board Report that highlights the measurable results from the organization’s key programs and projects. Focus the staff and board committee efforts on the top priorities of the organization.

PROBLEM THREE Executive Committee Does It All It’s just easier with fewer people. The Executive Committee can have a meeting before the board meeting and discuss, digest and make recommendations to the rest of the board about most issues. Some board members are doing all of the work, others don’t seem to be interested or involved.

RECOMMENDATION Slowly phase out the Executive Committee over time and ask the board committees to come to the board meetings with crisp, direct recommendations to the entire board. Expect more from every board member and empower board committees so that everyone has the opportunity to contribute.

PROBLEM FOUR No Clear Sense of Where the Organization is Going It seems like the organization is just treading water. We have no annual objectives for the staff and no actions for the board. We just come to board meetings and hear the same thing each month. And we always seem to be worried about money.

RECOMMENDATION As a board, sit down with your executive staff and decide the three most critical changes that need to take place in the next year. Decide how the board can support those activities (including fundraising) and how the board of directors can oversee and support the progress and the results you want to achieve.

PROBLEM FIVE The Board of Directors Provides no Oversight for the Organization It seems that the staff is doing fine without us. We’re not really sure what we should be doing. It’s hard to know what the staff is doing, and we don’t want to interrupt their work when they’re so busy.

RECOMMENDATION Think about the organization’s 4 or 5 key programs or projects. Decide what facts, figures, and trends the board needs to review at each board meeting to provide oversight and support for the top priorities of your organization. Ask the Executive Director to come to board meetings armed with this information. At the same time, work more closely with the staff to start discussing the future. Describe where you want to be in 5 or 10 years and determine how you can work together to make that future a reality.

Nonprofit Board of Directors Elevator Speech – 4 Easy Steps to Promote Your Organization

One indicator of a well-run nonprofit organization is whether or not the board members, staff, and volunteers consistently and personally promote the organization throughout the community. In part, this is accomplished by dozens of informal conversations (elevator speeches) that are delivered by people involved with the organization to help build awareness of the organization’s value.

The outline, below, lists and describes each of the four steps and provides some optional statements that can be used to construct an elevator speech. Of course, you can customize these statements or add others with which you are more comfortable. During orientation, each board member, staff and volunteer should be encouraged to develop his/her own elevator speech and to incorporate it into everyday conversations with family, friends, and business colleagues.

Step 1: Opener – Starts the conversation/States the need.

1. Have I mentioned that I’m involved with /on the board of xyz organization?

2. Are you familiar with xyz organization?

3. Have you heard about the xyz organization?

4. Did you realize that (definition of local need) right here in our town/county/state?

Step 2: Mission – Explain what the organization does/how it serves the “need.”

1. The mission of xyz organization is……

2. We focus on….

3. Our major work includes…..

4. You may have seen the newspaper article about our project/fundraiser/volunteer drive…..

5. We serve x (# ) clients and provide them with ___________

Step 3: Personal Involvement – Links the speaker to the organization.

1. I’ve been involved with xyz since ______ (year)

2. I enjoy being a part of xyz organization because…

3. I am proud of our work because…

4. I am especially excited about our recent project/accomplishments…

5. I first got involved with xyz organization when…

Step 4: Learn More – How can the listener learn more about the organization?

1. We have a great web site (———.org) where you can learn more about our projects and programs.

2. If you’d be interested in learning more about xyz I’d be happy to tell you more about our achievements/accomplishments.

3. Xyz has a monthly information session and I’d love you to be my guest and attend one of these sessions. 4. Could I drop off a written brochure to you – or send you one in the mail?

5. We are always looking for volunteers/board members to help us with…

6. Would you be interested in learning more about xyz organization?

All board members, staff and volunteers should be encouraged to construct an elevator speech that they can be personally comfortable delivering throughout the community.

Talking A Person Into Serving On A Nonprofit Board

Years ago, I approached a young businessman about him possibly joining the board of trustees at the university where I was serving as president at the time. He was open to the idea but didn’t immediately make a commitment. So then and subsequently I did the “good presidential thing” and pitched, pressed, persuaded, cajoled and sold him on the idea of serving as a trustee.

Eventually, my friend said, “Yes,” was appointed to the board, and of course I felt good. I thought I’d done my duty as nonprofit CEO, helping to build our board with young talent.

But a couple of years later things weren’t going as expected. My young trustee friend missed meetings regularly, didn’t participate much when he attended, and otherwise seemed only peripherally engaged. So in some frustration I remember speaking privately to our young board member’s older relative, a leader on our board and a man with whom I enjoyed a close relationship. I said, “You know, we have Ben, but we don’t have his heart. I think I talked him into serving on the board before he was ready.” To which my wise mentor said, “I think you did, too. What’d you learn from that?” Well, I learned a lot.

First, I learned that you don’t want everyone on your board you think you want on your board. We identify individuals with attractive gifting capacity or networks and we think, “We need that person on our board.” And maybe they’re willing to serve, but people who are willing are not always able. Or we identify individuals with leadership skills and we think, “That person would take our board to the next level.” Maybe this is true, but people who are able are not always willing. In either case, the last thing you want to do as nonprofit CEO is press these people into service.

Second, I learned that my gift of gab, this innate and developed facility with the spoken word, can sometimes get me into trouble. I learned that I can actually motivate (manipulate?) someone into serving on a board of trustees. Not every nonprofit CEO is “a talker.” Thankfully we’re not all alike. But then again, to survive and thrive in leadership you’ve got to be able to speak the King’s English and most CEOs are pretty good at getting their thoughts across. We don’t realize or we forget that our words are powerful, that they can compel people rather than simply engage people.

I don’t think what I said to my young businessman friend was “wrong.” But in retrospect I do think I “wore him down.” I think he agreed to serve on our board more to get me off his back, or to please me, or with feelings of guilt, than out of a sense of passion for the mission. Insofar as this assessment is accurate, the university board appointed a new trustee who deep inside didn’t really want to be there. As president I carved a notch in my gun handle, so to speak, but no one was ultimately benefited by this appointment—not the university, not the trustee, not even me.

The end of this young trustee’s story was the inevitable. About four years into his service he quietly resigned and, worse, drifted away from further engagement or financial support for the university.

So I learned I didn’t want everyone on our board I first thought I wanted on our board. I learned I needed to present my organization and board opportunity with enthusiasm, while modulating it always with a respect for the person with whom I was speaking. I needed to consider his or her best interests, timing, decision-making process, maybe prayers, and “fit,” not just my goal to get the “Yes” and notch another victory.

The same, by the way, can be said for fundraising. Too many nonprofit CEOs “go for the gold,” frankly thinking pretty much just about the amount of the ask, the campaign target, and how good they’ll feel getting the gift. What we need to be thinking about, what is in the best interests of the organization and the cause and the donor long-term is what are the donor’s priorities, what are his or her interests and feelings, and what’s best for the donor? If we truly match organization vision with donor priorities we will in the long run attract larger gifts and, even better, loyalty-with-longevity.

In the last year, the story of our young trustee and my learning curve came back to me. I’m now serving another nonprofit organization as CEO, and with that role comes the usual necessity and opportunity to build the board. I’d met this semi-retired businessman, liked and respected him, admired his accomplishments and talent, and appreciated the fact he gave a substantial gift to the organization. Everything about him said to me: “He’s board material.” So I approached him with the idea.

My friend expressed openness and said he’d think and pray about it and discuss it with his wife. He also attended two board meetings about four months apart, getting to know board members and learning more about our organization. But still, he held back.

At this point my extroverted personality and goals said, “Push.” Thankfully, that’s when I remembered young Ben and his wise relative, my mentor, from years ago. What did I learn back then? Did it apply now? It did.

I presented to my friend the case for board membership, than I backed off. Over the next few months I interacted with him, including a visit to his home, but only once did I mention the board opportunity.

This gentleman is still my friend, is still very interested in our organization, is still open to considering further financial support, and is still not a board member. In fact I recently received an email from him saying he’d given it a hard look and finally concluded his other commitments didn’t permit him to give us what we needed at this time.

So should I be chagrined? A little maybe, because I continue to believe my friend’s service would strengthen our board, but not if he isn’t ready. So should I be chagrined? Not really, because we’ve won a new, likely long-term supporter who may someday yet serve on the board. As it is, he’s about as engaged as one can be without actually accepting a formal appointment. Consequently, the organization, our friend, and even me are all not better but “best off.”

Nonprofit CEOs are generally go-getters, and they should be. We just need to remember to dial it down sometimes in the best interests of our vision, goals, and constituency. Supporters who want and are ready to serve are the best kind. So take care not to talk people into things they aren’t genuinely ready to do.