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Your Nonprofit Wants You to Hear This

Your Nonprofit Wants You to Hear This

Hey, nonprofit board members, listen up.  Your nonprofit organization has asked me to talk to you.  Yes, you.  I mean, I ASSUME your nonprofit wants me to talk to you.  Otherwise, why would the CEOs of so many nonprofit organizations, from A to Z – from arts organizations to zoos – talk to me ABOUT you?  They MUST want me to talk TO you.

Nonprofit board service is a wonderful way to champion a cause you believe in; to strengthen Montana’s vibrant nonprofit sector; to build your leadership skills; and even to broaden your network of friends and colleagues.  It’s important that we get board-service right.

Here’s what your nonprofit CEO wants me to tell you.  Our conversations generally go something like this:  “How can I get my board to” – fill in the blank – “raise money,” “come to meetings,” “respond to my calls and emails,”  “recruit other board members,” “do what they say they’ll do.”

And then there are the things your nonprofit wants you to STOP doing.  This includes – again, fill in the blank – “micromanaging,” “focusing on the trivial, not the important,” “constantly telling me to cut expenses,” “ignoring my advice.”

In our short time together, let’s tackle some of these issues.  Number one:  fundraising.  It’s your job.  Yes, staff plays a critical role in this, but – listen up – fundraising is the board’s job.  “But I volunteer my time!” I hear you cry.  Yes, and your nonprofit wants me to tell you they appreciate that.  But your time won’t pay the light bill, or the rent, or the staff.  

Now, relax:  there’s a role every board member can play in fundraising, regardless of whether you’re comfortable asking someone for money.  Asking people for money is the BEST way, but – trust me, your nonprofit CEO has other ideas that even the most fundraising-averse board member can put into action.  And remember, fundraising is your job.  Don’t ever join a nonprofit board thinking that it isn’t.  There’s a reason why a mantra of good nonprofit boards is “give, get, or get off.”  YES, you need to make sure expenses are kept in check – but your nonprofit also needs you to be a lot more active in fundraising than you have been.  Your nonprofit can’t cut its way to prosperity.

Next, micromanaging.  Stop it.  You have a CEO whose job it is to manage the organization.  YOUR job is to govern, to focus on the big picture, and serious issues, including the long-term sustainability of your nonprofit.  You have ONE employee:  your CEO, who is in charge of everyone else.  And as long as you are evaluating your CEO annually, and he or she is meeting or exceeding expectations, and achieving mutually agreed-upon goals, you ought to be listening to your CEO.  That’s why you have one.  And, if your CEO is performing well, you ought to be treating him or her like a valued partner in a higher calling, not like a subordinate to be bossed around.  Answer his calls or emails promptly.  Listen to her advice.  Do what you say you’ll do – don’t make your CEO have to remind you repeatedly.

Good nonprofit boards are “noses in,” and “fingers out.”  So – other than for the smallest, youngest, most grassroots nonprofits – if you’re hanging around your nonprofit regularly, other than to fill a volunteer shift; or if you’re going over your CEO’s head to the staff; or sending out board agendas and taking board minutes – stop it.  Use that time to be an informed ambassador and champion of your nonprofit; to thoughtfully help plan its future, including at board meetings; to recruit new board members to the cause – and you can always use that time to fundraise.

Here’s something I’ve noticed in three decades of nonprofit board service.  Sometimes businesspeople put up with things in their nonprofit life that they would never stand for in their for-profit life.  Your nonprofit has no clear strategic direction?  It’s hemorrhaging money?  Its reputation in your community is questionable?   The CEO is AWOL or underperforming?  Meetings drag on unproductively?  Fix it!  Why would you have one standard of performance for your business and another for your nonprofit?  Yes, your nonprofit has a different bottom line than, say, your bank or your title company, but it must be run in a businesslike way.  Don’t excuse mediocrity or underperformance by telling yourself, “Oh, it’s a nonprofit; I have to measure it differently.”  That flawed thinking weakens not just YOUR nonprofit, but the entire sector.

Don’t get me wrong, your nonprofit deeply values your board service.  Your CEO might be a little wary of being as candid with you as I am, but you can change that.  Implement a board-evaluation process that speaks to individual performance and to the performance of the full board.  Ask your CEO how you can better fill your role as a board member, and encourage a candid response.   Nonprofits throughout Montana – including yours – do a heroic job every day, changing and saving and enriching lives.  They can’t do it without you.  Thank you for all you do as a board member, and thanks for your willingness to raise your game.

For more tips about good board service, or for board-evaluation samples, email  I’m Susan Hay Patrick.  Your nonprofit and I thank you for listening.

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