Nonprofit Board Engagement: Strategies for Cultivating an Effective Board of Directors

Cultivating an engaged and effective Board of Directors is an ongoing challenge for nonprofit leaders. In my work with nonprofit organizations, helping to create a credible board is more than simply assembling individuals; it’s about finding the right fit for your organization. In this article, we’ll delve into fundamental strategies to enhance the board engagement and effectiveness in your organization.

Clarify Your Organizational Needs

Before recruiting board members, it’s crucial that you gain a deep understanding of your organization’s needs. Beyond a passion for the mission and a commitment of time, I encourage you to consider the following factors:

  • Time Allocation Preferences: Understand how your board volunteers prefer to allocate their time. Some may prefer hands-on involvement, while others may prefer strategic planning or fundraising.
  • Comfort with Uncertainty: Assess the comfort level of potential board members with uncertainty and ambiguity – navigating the nonprofit landscape often involves unpredictable challenges, as we well know. 
  • Relevant Experiences and Connections: Seek individuals with experiences and connections within the community that align with your organization’s mission and goals. Their networks can be invaluable for fundraising, partnerships, and outreach.
  • Specialized Skills: Identify individuals with specialized skills that complement your organization’s needs, such as financial expertise, legal knowledge, marketing acumen, or strategic planning experience.

Without a clear understanding of what your organization actually needs, your recruiting efforts may miss the mark, resulting in a board that lacks the diversity of skills and experiences necessary to govern your organization effectively.

Involve Volunteers in Your Planning

Quote: Generative ideas emerge from joint thinking, from significant conversations, and from sustained, shared struggles to achieve new insights from partners in thought.” Vera John- Steiner

Engaging volunteers in strategic planning not only empowers them, but also fosters a deeper connection to your organization. Strategic planning is obviously beneficial and even smaller organizations can benefit from focused discussions about the future. 

Something to consider is the possibility of hosting a planning retreat early in a board member’s tenure with the aim of achieving the following outcomes:

  • Fostering Relationships: Facilitate interactions between your new and experienced volunteers, building a sense of camaraderie and teamwork.
  • Educating New Members: Use the retreat as an opportunity to educate new members about the organization’s mission, history, vision, values, acheivements, and strategic objectives.
  • Shaping Your Organizational Culture: Collaborative planning allows volunteers to contribute their ideas and perspectives, shaping your organizational culture and fostering a sense of ownership.

By involving volunteers in your planning process, they become personally invested in implementing strategies for your organization’s success – and that’s exactly what we want, right! 

Foster Mutual Growth

Effective board engagement is a two-way street. While your organization will benefit from dedicated volunteers, it’s essential to invest in their development and well-being. Consider implementing the following strategies to demonstrate your appreciation and support for their dedication and commitment: 

  • Comprehensive Orientation and Training: Provide thorough orientation sessions to familiarize new board members with your organization’s mission, structure, programs, and governance practices. Offer ongoing training opportunities to enhance their skills and knowledge.
  • Mentorship Programs: Pair new board members with seasoned veterans to provide guidance, support, and opportunities for professional growth.
  • Attendance at Industry Conferences: Facilitate attendance at relevant industry conferences, workshops, and seminars, where board members can learn best practices, network with peers, and gain fresh perspectives.
  • Recognition and Appreciation: Regularly acknowledge and celebrate volunteer contributions through various channels, such as newsletters, social media, awards ceremonies, and personal thank-you notes.

Quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

When organizations prioritize the growth and satisfaction of their board members, engagement naturally follows, leading to a more cohesive and effective governing body. Cultivating an engaged and effective Board of Directors requires intentional effort and investment. By clarifying organizational needs, involving volunteers in planning, and fostering mutual growth, nonprofits can build a strong foundation for governance excellence and mission success.

Of course, every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges which is why I am here. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to effectively engage your organization’s Board of Directors. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com

Passion and Presence

I often get asked about the requirements of being a board member. And that’s a great question! Afterall, these folks are responsible for the leadership, vision, and long-term sustainability of amazing organizations that are committed to making our world a better place. 

So, many people are surprised when they learn that there really are no restrictions to who can serve on a nonprofit Board of Directors. There are a few states that have age requirements, but those can be easily circumvented through an agency’s ByLaws. So pretty much anyone can serve on a board. 

Who Can Serve?

That being said, there are some people who it would probably be a bad idea to put on a board. For example, anyone who has a conflict of interest could be a bad choice. This might be an employee, spouse of an employee, or anyone who could consistently gain financially from decisions made by the board. These folks would have to regularly recuse themselves from conversations, to the point where it might be difficult to be actively involved. Not only that, as the board members develop working relationships (which is a good thing!), it may be hard for other volunteers to make unbiased decisions due to their connections. 

Depending on the kind of board, the industry they are working in, and the longevity of the organization, individual boards may have specific needs. Boards often like to have someone with some business sense, content experts, or representation from the constituents they serve. But these are not legal requirements, and not everyone on the board will fall into one of the desired categories. 

Since there are no requirements in terms of skills, knowledge, experience, or other credentials – it begs the question, what does the organization and the board need from regular old people? I personally think that the two best things a person can bring to a board are attributes accessible to anyone. Those are passion and presence

Passion

When a board is looking for a new volunteer, I always tell them to look for passion first. Even if the organization really needs someone to help with their books, that should be secondary. If a volunteer is not passionate about the work, it’s going to be very easy for them to put the agency’s needs on the back burner. We want volunteers who care about the cause being addressed, not someone who has been talked into helping. 

This isn’t to say that people cannot develop a passion by learning more about the problem the agency is working to solve. Not being super passionate about a cause is not an automatic disqualifier. It just puts more pressure on the organization to educate and engage the new volunteer in understanding the work. 

Presence

The second component – presence – is something anyone can give to any organization. The simple (but not easy) act of being a mindful, thoughtful, present volunteer is one of the best things a volunteer can give to an agency. Because what a nonprofit really needs from their board is volunteers who take their role seriously and contribute in meaningful ways. 

Headspace (a free meditation app) defines being present as being focused on one thing — a conversation, a project, a task in hand — without distraction, without wanting to be somewhere else, without being in your head and lost in thought.

The nonprofit industry needs fully-present volunteers, committed to understanding their role and bringing thoughtful energy to the work of leading our nonprofit organizations. They do not necessarily need them to be an expert in the work they do, but they need volunteers to bring their opinions, their insights regarding the community and trends, and their critical thinking. These are all things that a volunteer can start contributing at meeting #1. There may be a lot of questions at first, and I always encourage volunteers to ask lots of them. If one person has the question, others can probably also gain insight from the conversation. 

Some people work at being present, for some it comes natural, and for others they may not give it much attention. So, how do we cultivate more presence of mind among governance volunteers? Here are a few ideas to try in board and committee meetings:

  • Kick off meetings with an opening thought
  • Create a segue from whatever volunteers had going on before the meeting, to the work of the meeting
  • Open with a mission moment
  • Consider implementing breathing exercises (here’s a great video on the power of breathwork) 
  • When it’s becoming clear that focus us waning, take a mindfulness break
  • Implement techniques like small group discussions or “all play” input to ensure everyone stays engaged
  • If you have other ideas for fostering presence in your board (or life), please share them with me!

When businesses are hiring, they often talk about the importance of hiring for attitude. This is because they believe they can train for everything else. Bringing on a governance volunteer is not much different. An organization can train and educate on the cause, the work, and the expectations. An organization usually needs the full engagement of their volunteers right away. “Hiring” for passion and presence means more engagement faster.

I love helping organizations to curate the board they need to advance the work of their organization. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to improve the health of a Board of Directors you know and love.

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com 

Check-in from Kim

About once a year I do a check-in with my contacts. I like to let folks know what I’m up to, and I love it when I get a response with an update on YOU! Would I prefer to sit down and have coffee with every single one of you? YES! Do I need that much caffeine in my system? No, no I do not.

It’s been just over a year since life’s circumstances led me to move back to Des Moines, Iowa from the Colorado Springs area. Overall, it’s been a great change for my family and me. I’ve been able to reconnect with my network, as well as family and friends. In 2023 I rode my bicycles more than the previous 5 years combined! My son is enjoying his senior year in high school, and my daughter is back in Colorado taking classes at CU Boulder. I so appreciate all of the support I received throughout my transition!

When I started my business I was doing consulting and coaching with just about anybody. Any of you who have a small business probably knows that doing anything often means doing nothing. As my journey continued, I narrowed my focus to nonprofits. Then getting even more specific, I now spend most of my time supporting nonprofit organizations with their volunteer governance boards, also known as their Board of Directors.

During my long career with the YMCA, I gained a LOT of knowledge and expertise in developing, leading, and empowering boards. What I didn’t realize at the time is that most nonprofit leaders do not receive any education on how a board should function, how to grow it, what to do with the volunteers once you have them, or what it means to have a healthy board. And those are the clients who I most love to help. A strong Board of Directors is vital to the long term sustainability and impact of an organization. Helping them get there is an honor!

Many people commit to new year’s resolutions this time of year (yes, I’m still considering this a new year, we’re only about 15% into 2024). In addition to trying to eat more green stuff and swear less, it’s also a great time to consider taking on a new role with a nonprofit Board of Directors. This kind of resolution is a win-win-win! You win by generating endorphins that come from doing good things for other people. The agency wins through gaining all your knowledge, passion, skills and expertise. And the community wins when you commit to making it a better place. If this is something that you are thinking about trying, check out my article on red flags to watch for, so that you can have the best experience possible.

If you are already serving on a board (thank you!), the new year is also a great time to take a good hard look at how it is functioning. Governance boards are often made up of business men and women. Sometimes we assume that since the people involved are all successful in their work life, they will be great in this role. Just like any other team or group – sports, staff, Girl Scouts – a board needs intentional thought put into getting, and staying healthy. To start a conversation about the health of your board, check out this article on conducting a board evaluation.

If you, or someone you know sits on a board that is not currently spending 80-90% of their time on governance work – I’d love to chat with the Chair/President or Executive Director. Governance work = visioning and planning, creating strategy, ensuring long-term sustainability, growing governance capacity, and partnering with the Executive Director in the leadership of the organization.

Below is a general list of the services that I provide to nonprofit agencies. One of the cool things about working with me is that I customize each contract package to meet the unique needs of the organization. Using listening and Motivational Interviewing skills I am able to create learning and growth experiences that advance the work of the organization.

Services:

  • Board evaluations
  • Executive Director and/or Chair/President coaching
  • Agency Consulting
  • Fractional support (part-time or temporary executive support)
  • Customized trainings
  • Strategic/Planning retreats

The nonprofit sector exists to make our world a better place. I love that I get to help these agencies get organized and build a healthy foundation. When you have your ducks in a row, saving the world is a lot more fun!

Respond to this email or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to catch up, or discuss ways to improve the health of a Board of Directors you know and love.

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com 

Plan for a Great Year-end Now

There are many different ways to raise money for the great causes in our communities. Getting your hardware store to have customers round-up, special events, mailings, selling cookies, and many, many more! In my career as an Executive Director and in the work I do now as a Consultant, I’ve always been much more passionate about the relationship side of fundraising than the transactional side. 

When we get nameless, faceless individuals to give us money on impulse or out of feelings of obligation or guilt, we are essentially making a transaction. It’s usually a one-time deal, and we never see the person again. There is nothing at all wrong with this. Many organizations are able to raise significant funds in this way. It’s just that I don’t get excited about it. 

The aspect of fundraising that motivates me is connecting people to causes that they care deeply about. To me, helping people to consider ways that they can make our communities stronger and healthier is what the nonprofit sector is all about. It involves drawing out empathy and compassion, then facilitating opportunities to direct those emotions into action and impact. This starts with developing relationships and your Board of Directors is a great place to begin laying the foundation of relationship-based development. 

At the end of the year, many organizations focus a great deal of energy on tasks that drive transactional giving. This is totally understandable – there are budgets to meet and year-end generosity and tax advantages to capitalize on. However, I want to spend this article giving you five strategies that you can put in place now (or over the next few months) that will help you sail into Q4 with confidence. 

Strategy #1 – Evaluate your Board of Directors

Is your board engaged? Do they care about the critical social issue you are addressing? Do they joyfully give their time, talent and treasure to advance the work you are doing to make your community a better place? Your board should be made up of your most enthusiastic and dedicated donors and volunteers. If they are not, it’s likely time for a shakedown. Imagine the year-end potential if you have a dozen raving fans out in the community sharing the importance of the work you do! 

Strategy #2 – Educate your Board of Directors 

Many people join boards because they care about the issue and advancing the solution, but they don’t know how to help. If they are not given direction, they often become disengaged, or they focus their energy in ways that are not helpful to the organization. Staff are already more than busy, and do not have time to download the massive amount of knowledge they have accumulated while working in the industry. 

So how do you bring volunteers up to speed so they can be actively involved in advancing the work? Give homework. Here are a few ideas that can help your volunteers understand your cause better. 

    • Assign research on the history or root cause of the issue your agency addresses. What are the underlying issues that many people don’t understand? 
    • Assign interviews with other agencies tackling different aspects of the issue. How do the different agencies work together? What other opportunities exist for tackling the problem? Why should we or should we not expand to address the issue in different ways? 
    • Assign interviews with constituents to help understand the impact of the issue. What do we think we know, but we really don’t? 
    • If possible, send them through an experience that helps them understand the work better. Poverty simulations, accessing services as a potential constituent, participating in programs, serving as a front-line volunteer, and more can give volunteers a deeper understanding of the cause. 

Have volunteers do their homework, then present it to the full board during a regular meeting. Them doing the research is going to make the learning more impactful, and they will likely come away with significantly different learnings than if staff had just told them what they know. 

Board members with a strong understanding of the problem and the unique way their organization is addressing the problem, are excited about sharing your amazing work and engaging other people in the solution. 

Strategy #3 – Engage your Board of Directors

Boards that come together every month or so just to hear about operations, are totally missing the point. Board and committee meetings should be centered on the work that the volunteers are doing to advance the cause. A planning or strategic retreat early in the fiscal year can help clarify the work that they need to be doing. If your agency is new to engaging your governance volunteers in appropriate work, here are a few ideas that can come out of intentionally planning their focus:

    • Expand upon the education homework to deepen understanding
    • Debate the merits of expanding or staying narrowly focused
    • Identify marketing opportunities for participants or donors
    • Discuss ways to deepen relationships with potential participants or donors 
    • Consider the strategies of other industries and how they may inform your work
    • Compare funding streams with those of other agencies and discuss
    • Identify XX prospects who should be friends of your organization and strategize how to establish and strengthen those relationships
    • Create policies to ensure long-term success
    • Plan for change, challenges and growth

These are just a few ideas, and of course – they will totally depend on the work and stage of your organization. The idea is to strengthen your board, their understanding and commitment to your work. As a result, you multiply the number of voices you have in your community sharing your stories. 

Strategy #4 – Tell different kinds of stories

Different brains work differently. There are a myriad of personality tests out there to prove it. So if you are only telling one kind of story, you are likely only connecting with one type of brain. Very generally speaking, these four different types of stories will appeal to four different types of potential friends of your organization:

    • Empathetic – these folks want to hear the stories about the people impacted by the problem and how you are helping them
    • Analytic – tell them about the numbers of people affected, financial burdens created by the problem, money saved by your solution, etc
    • Big Picture – give them the vision of how the world will be a better place because of your work
    • Process – this group wants to understand the problem and the way that you are fixing it

Oftentimes we just tell stories that pull at the heartstrings. Those are important stories, but for some people that’s just white noise. By telling different types of stories, you will pique the interest of more people and more potential year-end givers. When you educated your board on the different kinds of stories that can be told, you help them grow, and they become better story tellers for you. 

Strategy #5 – Capture and Communicate

I’ve talked before about the idea of friend-raising. This involves connecting people to your organization so that they care and hopefully want to volunteer, donate, spread the word, or engage in some other way. To friend-raise, you need to get out and talk to people about the work you are doing. Go to Rotary Clubs and networking groups and farmers markets. Seize every opportunity to tell your stories. This is how you spread awareness and find more potential “friends” of your organization.

If you are not already doing this, establish a system for capturing anyone who has potential to be a friend. In addition to name and contact information, collect how they connected to the organization, who would be a good person to follow-up, and rank whether they are a casual friend, a connected friend, or a committed friend. This can be a sophisticated CRM or an excel spreadsheet. 

When you (staff or volunteers) are out in the community speaking about your agency, note the people who ask the extra questions. Or the ones who have a personal story to tell you. Or the ones who stick around afterwards to talk more about the issue. These are perfect people to add to your list. 

Once you have a list, follow-up with them multiple times throughout the year. Send pictures from events, updates on impact, information about upcoming engagement opportunities, success stories, and more. Set a goal of connecting with organizational friends X times throughout the year. The purpose of the communications should be to deepen the relationship (they can include a “soft ask” if it feels appropriate). The bigger goal is to give them reasons why they want to donate during your year-end efforts. 

There you go! Five things that you (staff and volunteer leadership) can do now or throughout the year, to help make Q4 successful, fun and prosperous for your organization. 

I help organizations to create the volunteer leadership they need to advance their work and help make our world a better place. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to strengthen your Board of Directors and the work of your agency.

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com

Top 10 Reasons a Nonprofit Organization Does NOT Need a Board Consultant

With inspiration from the Late Show with David Letterman, this week’s article is all about the reasons why an organization might NOT need a Consultant to help with their Board of Directors. Counting backwards from 10, here we go:

The #10 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

All board and leadership staff have been trained on the philosophy behind nonprofits and their governance. Understanding the different roles of the agency leadership is key to being effective. Furthermore, it helps each volunteer and staff know and understands their role in leading the organization. 

The #9 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

The agency has established strategies and regularly monitors progress towards them. There are strategies tied specifically to the work of the volunteers in advancing the organization. 

The #8 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

One or more volunteers is actively paying attention to and driving the health and culture of the board. Not giving attention to the culture does not mean that one doesn’t exist. It simply means that it has evolved on its own. Without intentionality, a culture generally does not move in a positive direction. Additionally, this individual or group can establish systems to drive board accountability and productivity. 

The #7 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

Board meetings are super productive and well attended. Fifty percent of the meeting content is made up of generative discussions where all volunteers contribute. 

The #6 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

Governance volunteers understand and own their responsibility for the success of the organization. The board owns the success of the agency in the same way that the owner of a for-profit business owns its success. 

The #5 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

The board and staff leaders partner to drive the success of the agency. While, technically, the board supervises the Executive Director or CEO, the dynamics need to be more of a partnership. Neither governance nor operations can be effective without partnering with the other. 

The #4 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

Board members and staff can see the connection between the work they do and the mission impact they provide. Connecting the dots between tasks, projects, discussions, and programming with the mission and strategies of the organization motivates and maintains focus. 

The #3 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

Serving on the Board of Directors is a two-way street, where volunteers contribute, and also benefit. Any agency that just has their hand out looking for what their volunteers can give, will likely struggle to keep volunteers. Benefits to the board members include personal growth and development, networking, mentoring, recognition, and more. Sometimes they even get some really great agency swag!

The #2 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

The agency doesn’t really need to think about their future or impact. This may be the case if an agency has a crystal ball and can see the future. Or if they are really close to achieving the mission and vision of the organization and their work is almost complete. 

And, the #1 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

The organization already has more money, partners, supporters, volunteers and staff than they need. In this situation, an organization might not need a strong and healthy board to tell their story, raise money, forge relationships, and advance the cause. Good for them!

All of this being said, the clients that are doing a good job with their Board of Directors, and want to continue to get better, are some of my favorites. Every board has the potential to grow and improve. Making our world a better place is hard work. The better the health of a board is, the more equipped it will be to make a difference!

When we are working to grow and improve, an outside perspective can be beneficial. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to advance your Board of Directors and the work of your agency.

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com

Red Flags to Watch For

When I write about nonprofit board governance I usually spend my time addressing current nonprofit leaders – either staff or volunteers. This article is for current leadership, and also for those who are thinking about joining the board of a nonprofit organization. 

I love connecting people to organizations that they care about. But serving on a board has to be about more than a passion for the cause. It’s a commitment that should be taken as seriously as a job. In order to make a good decision for yourself, you need to ask a lot of questions. What follows are questions and topics to dig into, so that you can make a great decision about how you donate your valuable time. 

When people get caught up in an organization that is a mess, they tend to become disenchanted with the whole nonprofit sector. And that’s just not fair. There are so many great agencies, working hard everyday, to make our communities and our world a better place. To make sure you don’t end up disillusioned by this sector, here are some red flags to look for when choosing where to serve:

  • “Nonprofit” is not the business plan
  • Agency lacks focus on the mission
  • People are undervalued
  • Fundraising comes first
  • Lack of board ownership
  • Organizations that don’t know who they are or what they need

Let’s dig into each of these issues and what to look for/ask about.

Nonprofit Business = Business

Despite the confusion caused by the title “nonprofit”, all nonprofit organizations are actual legit businesses. They have to make at least as much money as they spend each year. The term “nonprofit” is a tax designation from the IRS. It’s not a philosophy for how to run a business. 

In fact, many of these organizations generate a surplus. The difference comes in what they do with that money. A nonprofit organization is required to reinvest the surplus back into the organization. This could be in the form of equipment, supplies, salaries, training, facilities, investments, etc. With a for profit business, any surplus goes into someone’s pocket. 

Board members are responsible for the fiscal health of the organization. Before joining any board, ask a lot of questions about the agency’s finances. Even if their financial situation isn’t stellar, does the board have a plan to fix it? Is that the kind of problem-solving work you like to do? Avoid any board that has financial problems that they are refusing to address. 

Benefit the Community

Nonprofit organizations exist to make our world a better place. For profit organizations exist to make money for someone – the owner(s), shareholders, investors, etc. 

Governance volunteers are charged with making decisions that are in the best interest of the constituents served and the agency. This is why board members are volunteers. When money comes into the picture, there’s personal interest that may influence their decision making. Does the agency have a conflict of interest policy? 

Another thing to look for in this area includes ego driven leaders. Agencies with either staff or volunteer leaders who make themselves the center of the work can be extremely toxic. These leaders struggle to keep the focus on the cause. They make decisions based on how they will look/benefit, rather than what is best for the organization and its mission. 

Organization Values Its People

Reputable agencies believe in the importance of fair compensation for their employees. Just because someone works for a cause-driven business, it does not mean that they don’t need a livable wage. Caring about constituents at the expense of employees is a contradiction that should be examined. 

Young organizations sometimes hire or contract part-time staff to manage operations as they grow. This is fine, as long as they are not expecting full-time work on a part-time salary. Additionally, this should be a short-term solution, while the board figures out how to get to the level of staff leadership they need to be successful. 

Strategy Drives Fundraising

So far, I have never encountered a nonprofit that didn’t need money. It’s the nature of the game. Making our world a better place takes money. However, boards that focus on fundraising first are missing the point. Fundraising efforts need to be tied to strategies that have been developed to fulfill the mission. Without connecting those dots, it’s going to be extremely difficult to raise funds. 

Integrity

It is the job of the board to uphold the integrity of the organization. If something doesn’t seem right the board MUST speak up. By asking questions about accountability, generative discussions, and where the power of the organization lies, you’ll get a good idea about the board’s leadership. 

Red flags to listen for include any board that lets the staff totally run the show, unaddressed financial issues, lack of vision held by the board, and board meetings where the volunteers just come for a “sit & get”. 

Websites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar can help you with your research. These sites rate nonprofits based on their IRS compliance and verify good standing. They provide access to Form 990 data, giving you the ability to evaluate an agency’s financial health. These resources can help you decide if an organization is a good fit for you or not. 

Culture, Values, Structure, and Needs

Making a good decision about the kind of agency you want to volunteer with involves knowing yourself. What kind of culture do you want to be part of? What are your values and how do they align with those of the organization? Do you want to be part of building a young organization or will you be more comfortable with all the policies and procedures in place? Do the skills-based-needs of the agency align with your talents? 

Other things to consider include your tolerance for risk, what you want to get out of the experience, your time availability compared to the needs, and how you think you can make a difference. Just like every person is different, every organization is also different. Take the time to make sure you find one that aligns with your wants, needs, values and interests. 

None of this is meant to scare you away from governance work. It’s meant to give you the knowledge to ask good questions, get involved with reputable organizations, and have the impact that you want to have on your community! 

If you are on a board where you see some of these red flags, it doesn’t mean that you should quit and run away. However, you might want to start asking questions and using your influence to help move the agency in a positive direction. 

Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to advance your Board of Directors and the work of your agency. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com 

 

Engaging Your Board Members

As I shared in my last article, the number one question I am asked by nonprofit leaders is “Where do I find good board members?” You can read here that it’s not about finding good board members, it’s about finding the right ones for your organization. The next most often asked questions are “How do I get my board members engaged?” and “What do I do with these people?” That’s what we’ll chat about today. 

Contrary to what most organizational leaders hope for, you can’t just recruit a great board member, then expect them to know exactly what to do and what your organization needs. They may be good, but they are not psychic. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to put it out there. If governance volunteers are not engaged, it’s probably not a “them” problem. It’s usually a board problem or an organizational problem. 

Let me ask a few questions:

  • Do you/does your organization know what you need from your board?
  • Have you/the organization engaged volunteers in planning?
  • What do you/your organization provide for the volunteers, to help deepen their connection?
  • Who do you/your organization have focusing on the health of the board as a whole and the engagement of individual volunteers? 

If your answers are: no, no, nothing and no one – that is probably a very big part of your engagement problem. Building off of those questions, there are the four components that I believe will set you up for developing an engaged board. Let’s dig in.

Knowing What You Need

As was discussed in the article on finding good board members, different organizations have different needs. This goes far beyond passion for the mission and the time they can commit. Think about:

    • How they want to give their time
    • Their comfort level with ambiguity
    • Experiences that align with your future goals
    • Connections in the community
    • Specialized skills 
    • Their goals for how they give their time

I would argue that you shouldn’t even start recruiting volunteers until understand your organizational needs. Maybe not ALL your needs, but have an idea of what you are asking people to do. 

Get Volunteers Involved in Planning

A board retreat or strategic planning session is a good way to connect your volunteers to the organization. While many organizations conduct very elaborate strategic planning processes, it does not have to be like that. Smaller organizations can’t always afford the time and money that it takes for a complex process. However, any agency can benefit from taking time to have deep-dive conversations about the future of the organization. 

Holding a planning retreat soon after the induction of new board members can provide several great outcomes:

    • Relationship-building between new and veteran volunteers
    • Education for newbies on the mission, vision, values, critical social issue the agency addresses, and the unique solutions the agency provides
    • Culture can be shaped based on how this event is planned and delivered
    • Volunteers will be much more connected to the strategies and action steps that they are involved in developing, than they would be in ones that are simply presented to them

I have heard the concern about brand new volunteers coming to a retreat and not knowing enough about the organization, what’s going on, or how to contribute. My argument to this is that your volunteers do not need to know all about your organization. In most cases, what nonprofits need from their volunteers is an understanding of the community or constituents they serve, business and leadership skills, and lived experiences. If your volunteers are getting down in the weeds of operations, they are not focusing on the right stuff. 

After any good retreat, you should come away with strategies for advancing the organization. Some of the action steps from the strategies may end up being staff driven; however, the goal is to come away with work for the board to focus on. Those actions should be assigned to a task force, an ad-hoc committee, or a standing committee. Again, if the volunteers have been involved in the creation of these plans, they are going to be much more invested in carrying them out. 

Make It a Two-way Street

A Board of Directors is not just about what the organization can get out of the volunteers. It should go both ways. Absolutely, the organization should benefit from having great volunteers, no question. But if you are not investing in them, they will not stick around for very long. 

Some of the ways that I have seen organizations value their volunteers include:

    • Providing a thoughtful welcome and orientation to the organization and to the board
    • Training them on things like: how to be a great board member, the critical social issues the agency addresses, community dynamics, organizational structure, etc
    • Implement a mentoring system to help newer volunteers become acclimated and provide a leadership role for seasoned volunteers
    • Send them to industry conferences
    • Provide networking opportunities with the organization’s board, community leaders, other leaders in the industry, or thought leader on the cause
    • Help them to develop their leadership skills by supporting them in projects, presentations, and community outreach
    • Recognition for their service and contributions
    • Spotlighting volunteer contributors through newsletters or at events

You could also have a generative conversation at a board meeting around ways to help volunteers grow, support them in their personal goals, and recognize their contributions. 

Board Development Committee

In my opinion, one of the best ways to engage volunteers and ensure their energy is focused on appropriate projects, is to create a Board Development Committee (also called a Board Governance Committee). This subset of the board has their finger on the pulse of the health of the board. 

There are so many ways that this committee can impact the engagement of your board. Here are some examples:

    • Establish and nurture the desired culture
    • Plan meeting structure, layout, conversations, etc.
    • Troubleshoot when problems start to surface
    • Have peer conversations
    • Evaluate the effectiveness of meetings
    • Recruit and onboard volunteers
    • Evaluate the board as a team and as individuals
    • Create social opportunities to strengthen relationships

Ideally, Boards should be self governing. With a little direction, this committee can ensure they are moving in the right direction. 

The role of your board is to look out into the community and into the future to make the best decisions they can for the organization and those served. This should be the focus of the work of your board. So often, organizations do not know what to do with their board, so they give them “check-list” items. Tasks to do that they can check off a list.

Governance leadership is not a checklist. It’s engaging people who care about your cause in high level conversations, to shape the impact and the future of the organization. If, after these suggestions, you’re still at a loss for what to do with your volunteers, below are some more ideas. 

  • Conduct program quality evaluations 
  • Examine the impact of programs
  • Drive donor appreciation 
  • Friend-raise
  • Survey – participants, the community, stakeholder, etc.
  • Plan a retreat
  • Hold community conversations around the critial social issue you are working to solve
  • Get involved in board development
  • Host new member or new participant receptions
  • Serve on a future-planning task force
  • Examine organizational succession plans 
  • Review bylaws and policies

I could truly go on and on. There are so many ways volunteers can contribute their expertise of the community, the constituents, business, leadership, planning, and more. It takes a bit of guidance to keep them out of the weeds, but once the big-picture culture is established, boards usually keep themselves future-focused. 

Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to effectively engage your organization’s Board of Directors. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com

Where Do I Find Good Board Members?

This is BY FAR the most frequently asked question that I get. As if I have some secret lair where all the good governance volunteers hide. That question is followed closely by “How do I get my board members engaged?” and “What do I do with these people?” All of these questions are related. 

The fact is that someone who could be an amazing board member for one agency could be dismal for another organization. The needs of every single agency and every single Board of Directors is different. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to finding board members. 

Some of the factors to consider when you think about the kind of volunteers you need for your board include:

  • Organizational duration
  • Organizational size
  • Future vision and plans
  • Specialized expertise required
  • Mission, cause and values

There are probably more, but let’s start by looking at these factors. 

Organizational Duration

 A young organization is going to have different needs than one that is established and has longevity. Newer organizations are often still figuring things out. They are in “build-mode,” where they might be working on crafting their mission, vision and values. If they have that stuff figured out, they might have moved on to developing policies and procedures or establishing fundraising strategies. 

A newer agency will need volunteers who are comfortable with ambiguity and working on figuring things out. Someone who likes to have all their ducks in a row would not necessarily be a good fit for a young nonprofit. On the other hand, that person may thrive with a more established organization looking for stability and unfaltering leadership. 

Organizational size

Smaller nonprofits tend to be local – addressing issues in their community. These agencies are probably looking to attract volunteers in that community, who have the expertise of understanding the environment, and passion for fixing critical social issues. 

92% of nonprofits have budgets under $1 million a year and 88% are under $500,000. The level of financial expertise and strategizing required to lead one of these organizations is not going to be as significant as what is required to lead a $20M agency. Thus making smaller nonprofits great places for “beginner board members” to learn the ropes of serving as a governance volunteer. 

Larger agencies are likely going to need volunteers who know the ropes when it comes to serving on a board. They may require specialized expertise, significant relationships, regional representation, and more. If an organization serves the entire country, they may be looking for volunteers from all over to represent different parts of their constituency. 

Future Vision & Plans 

Agencies focused on remaining small and local will have different needs than those looking to go nationwide or worldwide. Similarly, those that want to stay narrowly focused on one strategy will differ from those looking to attack an issue on several fronts. 

Any organization looking to make big changes will need to consider the kind of expertise and leadership that they will need. If building a facility is in the plan, realtors, architects, contractors and developers may be good prospects. Significant expansion could cause an agency to look for volunteers who have grown other businesses. And when a nonprofit is committed to going deep in one area, they might want to find someone who is a subject matter expert in that specific solution. 

Specialized Expertise 

As stated before, the vast majority of nonprofits are small businesses addressing local social issues. In many of these cases, all that is needed is a passion for making the community a better place. However, some agencies have the need for specialized knowledge, expertise, or skills. For example, an agency addressing a local environmental issue will likely need some level of expertise helping to guide their work. 

Based on the work and goals of the nonprofit, they may decide that they need a financial expert to help make strategic decisions about their finances. Or a legal expert might be beneficial to their work. 

Having specialized needs does not automatically mean that the organization must recruit a volunteer with those skills to their board. Needs can be addressed by utilizing non-governance volunteers, contractors, or staff. The agency needs to decide what is the best way to acquire the specialized expertise required for responsible decision making. 

Mission, Cause & Values

I often tell nonprofit leaders that the most important quality in a board member is that they care about being part of the solution you provide. Everyone is busy, and if a volunteer doesn’t care, it’s easy for other things to get in the way of board meetings, events and service. 

Not only do they need to care about the issue you are addressing, but they need to align with your values and methodology. For example, if an agency is committed to getting rid of puppy mills, they likely attract a lot of dog lovers. However, if they do it through euthanizing, that is going to narrow the pool of potential volunteers who align with their strategies. 

Again, there are probably additional factors to consider that are unique to your organization. If you don’t know what you need, it’s going to be hard to find it. In marketing they call this finding your niche. It seems counter intuitive, but the more you narrow your focus on what you are looking for, the more likely you are to find it. 

When you put out a call for governance volunteers, and you say “we’re looking for anyone wanting to serve our organization” – you likely hear crickets. The more specific you can get, the better your chances of someone seeing themselves in the description of what you need. Or, they may think of another prospective volunteer based on your description. 

Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss your organization’s wants and needs for your Board of Directors. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com

Think of your Board of Directors as an Adult Leadership Program

When I was an Executive Director with the YMCAs, I had Program Directors who ran our programs – things like day camp, youth sports, teen leaders, etc. Other organizations probably have similar roles, people who run programs, services, do case management, etc. A couple of months ago I shared an article on effective board meetings. In it, I talked about how I think of the Board of Directors as an Adult Leadership program that the Executive Director leads. 

Our youth programs would teach kids things like teamwork, sportsmanship, and how to develop healthy relationships. Similarly, our Board of Directors helps adults to develop their presentation and collaboration skills, it teaches them how to problem solve and advocate for things that are important to them, and it gives them a connection to their community that they might not otherwise have. 

When we think about our boards in that light, it shifts how we think about the structure, functions and activities of the board. It also helps us shift from a one-way street to a two-way street. If we just think about the board as being there to serve our organization, it’s a one-way street – what can the organization get out of these people? When we consider our work with the board as a two-way street we start to think about how the work engages and develops the members of the board. 

In planning a youth development program, the director needs to consider these components: 

  • Objectives and Purpose
  • Target Audience
  • Program Structure and Activities 
  • Curriculum and Content
  • Resources and Materials
  • Staff and Volunteers
  • Budget and Funding
  • Outreach and Recruitment
  • Evaluation and Assessment
  • Safety and Risk Management 

Let’s look at each and see how these planning components can apply to running an Adult Leadership program, AKA the Board of Directors. 

  • Objectives and Purpose

    • Clarify what you want the organization to get out of the program AND what you want the participants to come away with. Will they experience skills development, personal growth, community engagement, network building, leadership skills, personal fulfillment, etc? 
  • Target Audience

    • Who and what does your organization need in order to advance the work on the cause? Think about the skills, passion, connections, characteristics, and demographics of the people you want on your board. If the people on your board do not possess the qualities that you need, how can you help them to level-up?
  • Program Structure and Activities 

    • What are you going to have your board members do? It’s not enough to just have them come to board meetings for a sit & get. Incorporate opportunities for every board member to speak and contribute. Think about engagement opportunities outside of board meetings; such as committees, task forces, program observations, community outreach, public appearances, and more. Ideas for engaging your volunteers at a higher level:
      • Provide experiential learning to help grow their knowledge of the cause
      • Give them research projects or reading to do and report back to the larger group
      • Have them interview experts in your industry and share their learnings 
      • Give them the opportunity to conduct mission moment interviews and share the impact the organization is having
      • Delegate the facilitation of a discussion topics to someone other than the board chair
      • Additionally: opening thoughts, timekeepers, and committee reports are all roles that volunteers can step into 
  • Curriculum and Content

    • The content of board work should tie back to the mission and strategies of the organization. By including volunteers in strategic planning and tying those plans back to the month-to-month work of the board, you actively engage your board in advancing the mission. In addition, consider the opportunities you are including for your volunteers to grow. You might include:
      • Formal or informal training on things like: board governance, community initiatives, leadership skills, industry trends, etc. 
      • Board mentoring
      • Presentation opportunities
      • Networking 
      • Mission education and connection
  • Resources and Materials

    • This involves ensuring that your volunteers have the information available to do their job as a board member effectively. That can include an onboarding process, access to historical information, agendas and reading materials distributed in advance, and staff or volunteer support.
  • Staff and Volunteers

    • In order to ensure that the adult leadership program is effective, it requires staff or volunteer monitoring. Often the Executive Director is the leader who ensures that the program runs according to design. A Board Development committee or a Board Governance committee can (and should) help with planning, executing, and evaluating the work of the board. 
  • Budget and Funding

    • Just like with any other program, potential expenses need to be considered. Do you need to rent space for meetings, provide meals or snacks, purchase name tags or shirts, host socials, etc? Meals or other refreshments can serve as a great strategy for bringing people together and providing informal networking. 
  • Outreach and Recruitment

    • I hardly ever talk to a nonprofit leader that doesn’t ask me how they can find and recruit good board members. It’s important to acknowledge the fact that a professional and highly productive board can be one of your best attraction and retention tools. When people are excited about serving on your board and they believe their time is being used valuably, they will want to get others involved. And, the opposite is true. If meetings are unproductive and poorly organized, they can repel prospective board members.
  • Evaluation and Assessment

    • Again, this is often led by the Executive Director, and it is great to enlist the Board Development committee with this process. Good questions for the group to discuss include:
      • How effective was our last meeting?
      • Did we engage all members?
      • Are volunteers actively contributing?
      • What can we do to make the next one better? 
      • Are there any “off-line” conversations that need to happen? 
      • Are we meeting our objectives in regards to adult leadership development? 
      • Are we moving the needle on the work of the board towards our strategic objectives? 
  • Safety and Risk Management 

    • Serving on a board is usually a fairly low risk program in terms of physical safety. Unlike providing swimming or camping programming! To make sure that your volunteers are protected, all agencies should carry Directors & Officers (D&O) insurance. Additionally, ensuring that you create a culture where it is safe for people to step outside their comfort zone is key to helping them grow. No one grows when they do not feel safe. 

There’s no question that our best volunteers are the ones who give their time and energy to our organization out of a passion and desire to give back. And that is still super important. But if we are only thinking about what we can get out of our board members, rather than what we can give them, we are missing an opportunity to further develop the adult leaders we interact with and who care about making our world a better place. 

Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss your organization’s Adult Leadership Program. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com 

 

Launching an Executive Director Evaluation Process

When I thought about this topic for an article, I was thinking it would be geared towards younger, newer organizations. That was until I recently spoke with the Board Chair of a nonprofit that has been around for 16-years. They still do not have a system in place for providing feedback to their Executive Director, or helping to ensure that the Exec’s work aligns with the goals and strategies of the agency. 

With that, this article is for any organization that does not have an executive evaluation system in place, or whose system isn’t really working for them. You may be wondering why a business would not have a system in place for evaluating their highest staff leader. The biggest reason I see occurs when the founder of the organization is the Executive Director. The board often does not know their role with providing feedback for them. It can also be hard and sometimes awkward to get started. 

Technically, the Board of Directors of a nonprofit organization supervises the Executive Director. However, the unique structure of nonprofits means that the Board and the ED have to work closely in partnership to effectively lead the organization. The challenge can come from the need to maintain a collaborative relationship, while also providing the leadership, guidance and growth opportunities of a supervisor. My recommendation is always to start this process in the same way that you lead the organization, as a shared project. 

Depending on the size of the organization and the number of employees, there may already be a system in place that the Exec has established for evaluating staff. If so, this is a great place to start. I don’t mean that the board should just take the tools that the staff is using, and apply them to the ED. What I mean is, if there is already an evaluation cycle or timeline, look at how to roll into it. Look at the tools that are being used to see if any of them make sense for your task. Get an idea of how the current process looks and feels. 

If no process exists, or the board doesn’t really like the one that is there, it actually gives you a lot more freedom. Here are some questions to think about as you start planning: 

  • What is the culture of the organization and how should it inform the evaluation process?

Is the organization formal and serious? Playful and fun? Relaxed yet determined? All processes and procedures should link back to the values and the brand of your organization. That’s not to say that if you have a playful culture you do not take the process seriously. Supporting your ED is important work. But your system may be relaxed and conversational. 

  • How should the timing look?

Many organizations tie the executive evaluation to their fiscal year or the calendar year. Since you may be starting from scratch, it’s worth evaluating the best time of year to conduct the evaluation process. The end of the fiscal year can be a very busy time for nonprofit professionals. They may be wrapping up fundraising efforts, creating plans and budgets for the coming year, and measuring the impact of the work for the past year. If the fiscal year lands at the end of the calendar year, there are all the additional commitments that come with the holidays. Consider holding annual evaluations during a slower time of year, so it’s not one more thing for staff to commit to. 

  • Who should be involved?

This depends on the size of your board. If you have a board of three people, it may make sense for one person on the board to conduct the whole thing. If you have a larger board, the Human Resources committee should drive this process or an ad-hoc task force. Ideally, more than one person provides input about what will be shared with the Exec. Additionally, the meeting should be conducted with at least two representatives from the board. This communicates that the feedback is coming from a united front. At the same time, it’s not a huge group making the ED feel ganged up on. 

  • What are the preferred outcomes? 

Conducting an executive evaluation is not just about checking something off a list. It’s about deepening relationships, providing opportunities for growth and improvement, advancing the work of the organization, and respecting the staff leader of the nonprofit. Going into the process with this mindset ensures a positive outcome. 

Once you think through these questions for your organization, you come to the matter of starting the process. Often boards struggle here because they have not put any measurements or expectations in place. It begs the question – how do you evaluate someone when you haven’t really outlined their expectations? That’s a fair question. My recommendation is two-fold: 

  1. Start out as a two-way conversation, and
  2. Base the conversation on generally accepted executive competencies. 

Rather than going into the meeting with measurements and clearly defined deliverables, approach it as a conversation. Granted, it should be a conversation that both parties are well prepared for; however, it should be a transparent discussion. Acknowledge the fact that the agency has not had a system in place for evaluating the ED. Note that getting started is difficult, and you’re more focused on getting it implemented than ensuring a perfect process from the start. Share plans for improving it in the future. 

Base the conversation on general expectations of nonprofit staff leaders. This includes things like: 

  • Operational effectiveness
  • Team leadership
  • Community presence
  • Fundraising
  • Administration & Human Resources
  • Financial sustainability
  • Mission impact
  • Board of Directors leadership 

The unique needs of your organization may lead you to add something different or remove some of these categories. This isn’t an exact list, just a good place to start. Come to an agreement with the Executive Director on what items are relevant to their role. Both parties should take some time to think through the Exec’s performance in each category, documenting their thoughts. Then, for that first evaluation, it should really be a discussion where both parties compare notes and talk about any discrepancies. Document how the conversation goes, any action steps to be taken, and start planning for next year. 

As you prepare for the future, think about how this process went. What were the positives and what should be improved. Consider any concrete measurements that should be put in place for the coming year. Be sure to tie measurements to the big picture and strategies. Then communicate them to the ED right away, so they know what they will be evaluated on the following year. 

The last point that I would like to make on implementing an executive evaluation is to keep the conversation high level. If the ED made a mistake 6-months ago, it should have been addressed at that time. Did they learned and grew from the experience? Then there is no need to include it in the year end evaluation. If anything, they have shown that they are coachable and growth minded. The evaluation is an opportunity to look big picture at the effectiveness of the Executive Director and their role in advancing the mission of the organization. 

A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. Initiating an executive evaluation process is an important first step in ensuring effective leadership and organizational success. Approaching the task with the mindset of having a conversation, rather than needing to have a formal process can help to get the ball rolling. By establishing a framework for comprehensive discussions, feedback and support, boards can foster a culture of continuous improvement and promote the long-term sustainability of their organization. 

Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss how to get the executive evaluation process started for your organization. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com