Back in the dark ages, I used to talk about something I called “the ripping envelope syndrome” when I gave workshops and seminars about the role of the board. This “syndrome” was characterized by the chair of a nonprofit board opening the board meeting with the words, “Okay the first order of business is to approve the minutes of last month’s meeting. A hush would fall over the boardroom, and the only sound would be most of the board ripping open the envelopes of the “board packet” they had received in the mail, so they could quickly review the minutes and vote on them.
This “syndrome” was a classic example of how many board members came to meetings unprepared to discuss reports that had previously been mailed, review the agenda, and know which action items needed to be voted on. And, most agendas certainly did not prepare board members for kind of strategic discussions that are the real role of the board.
Of course, the world has changed since those dark ages, but probably not as much as you’d think.
We hope that nonprofits aren’t still snail-mailing agendas and committee reports, but we do wonder how any board members are downloading important documents and reports before they walk into the board meetings. And we still see lots of boards that do not understand their roles and do not think strategically because they’re too caught up in tactical moves—how is the registration for our golf tournament coming along? Did we send out that grant proposal that we talked about last month? Are those thank you letters you wanted me to sign ready? And, this is only the fundraising side of it. Imagine all the other tactical things boards talk about—do we need to hire a new staff member to run that new program? What about moving the executive director’s office? Can we start serving decaffeinated coffee at our board meetings? Did the toilet get fixed?
Sound familiar? And, if it does, have you wondered why you haven’t been able to keep good board members?
When I was asked to contribute to the book You and Your Nonprofit Board, I wrote a chapter about how to find and keep business people on your board. I talked about speaking “business speak” and working with a business leader’s schedule--timing of your board meetings and other activities, talking about “investing” in your organization, and not wasting board members’ time. So how do we do all that?
First, make sure your technology is up-to-date. Use a platform like Boardable to keep board members advised of reports and documents they need to see, schedule meetings, track activities, etc. And, speaking of reports, make sure you have a good CRM system, so you can give accurate reports at meetings. There is nothing more frustrating at a board meeting than to hear a fundraising report followed by the words, “well, this isn’t up to date,” or “these figures don’t include…”
Make sure staff members who communicate regularly with board members are using the latest technology to do so--smartphones, a good calendar system, email. And make sure your website is something board members can be proud of which to point people.
Second, be sure board members understand that their role is not management, it is governance. This means they have the responsibility to govern your organization using the prudent person principle, not to get involved in the day-to-day operation of your organization. They also have the responsibility to assure that the organization’s finances are in good order, to monitor both sides of the budget—income and expenses. And, to learn how to strategically manage the fundraising program. This means that they are not worrying about what color stationery you’re sending thank you letters on, where you’re buying the T-shirts for the walk-a-thon, and which florist is supplying centerpieces for the gala. They need to think about things like—what is our donor retention rate, who is our ideal donor, how many visits to major donors does it take to secure a gift, do we have the right infrastructure in place to run an effective fundraising program, are we spending enough on the fundraising program.
Board members and staff can take the online Leaky Bucket Assessment to see where their organization ranks. It is quick, easy, and free, and it helps board members understand where their organization is strong and where it is weak.
Assessment is a key role of the board, as discussed in Board Bound Leadership, which is another great tool for busy, and tech-savvy board members. They can sign up for an eight-session virtual course they take on their own time. Find out more about this at www.BBLeaders.com.
So, don’t replace your boards “ripping envelope syndrome” with the “Oh, I forgot to download it syndrome.” Make sure your board members understand their role and make sure you give them to tools to keep them interested and active.