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Author: Alex Comfort, CFRE


One of my latest passions is watching boards of directors in non-profit agencies.  Everywhere I look some organization or another is offering training for board members.  I should talk, a good bit of my business life is training and dealing with boards.

Yesterday, I was hired to train a board in 90 minutes at their annual retreat.  As part of that, I sat in on the previous 45 minutes of discussion before my part began.  I was very interested in watching them interact.  There were 12 board members present but only 4 talked on an important decision regarding their future.  The executive director had told me previously that only a third were active, few came to their 8 special events (good grief, too many events!!!!), and not everyone gave a gift each year.

So during my presentation, I got all of them to talk by asking them direct questions, using a lot of humor and moving around a lot too.  Normal stuff, but it got them going.

I think one of the biggest problems non-profit leaders have with boards is expecting too much of them.  We need to remember to find out why they are joining the board – some reasons like social climbing are not so very positive.  And we need to presume they know nothing about being on a board.  It requires a lot of work on staff to get a board active and working together.  Too often we start whining too soon and ultimately we give up.

What board members need to know:

  1. Finances – where the money is spent and how it comes in, in detail.  Do not presume they are unhappy with your realities.  Just tell them and keep telling them.  Even the financial types will not understand your finance report.  Use a dashboard to compare last year with this year at each meeting.
  2. Staff and volunteer morale – just the highlights here but let them know if there are real problems.  
  3. Fundraising – let them know that this is 50% of their “Fiduciary Responsibility” and that they can help in so many ways without actually asking people for money.  
  4. How to “tell the story”- Bring in, actual clients.  Have the best storyteller do it in 5 minutes.  Get them “Fast Fact Cards”, business cards, and other materials to hand out.  Maybe even give them a monthly quota of contacts (give them contact reports).

What executive directors need to do:

  1. If you get “bad vibes”, go to that person immediately.  DO NOT WAIT FOR IT TO “BLOW OVER”.  It won’t blow over.  If they need to blast you, then wear your iron underwear and take it.  Well, unless it gets abusive.
  2. And if the blessed board member screams “I’m going to get you fired “three times” (as I did one time), then line up your board support and roll your sleeves up.  (I wouldn’t exactly say he succeeded, but it was close enough.)
  3. Be positive all the time.  Expect them to be helpful.
  4. Call them and ask them to be present at events.  Or have the Board Chair call them individually – it’s the chair’s role, after all.
  5. When in doubt – communicate.
  6. Keep a grid of Board Member Contacts by your phone.  Determine how often you should contact them – I’d suggest at least every other month.  If you don’t “touch them” often, they will lose interest.
  7. Remember that, to a degree, they see you as a “rock star”.  Give them some love.

Above all, remember that they are volunteers.  Don’t be shy about removing a bad or inattentive board member.  There needs to be a process.  But for the most part, they want to be helpful.  Help them be helpful.

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