After a mini-Spring Break with my kids, I’m back on track with my project comparing leading staff teams to leading a Board of Directors. I see a lot of similarities, but many nonprofit leaders find board leadership to be intimidating and confusing. Hopefully this series can help to alleviate some of those uncomfortable feelings. Afterall, board volunteers are really just people who want to have a positive impact on their communities. Not much different from nonprofit staff, really. Check out earlier articles on culture, supervision, accountability, and appreciation.
A big part of leading a Board of Directors is about building relationships around a common purpose. That being the mission of your organization. Building healthy relationships comes down to communication, similar to relationships with staff. The tricky part is striking a balance between enough communication and not overwhelming your volunteers.
I like to categorize board communication down into these three buckets:
- Relationship building
- Agency understanding
The rest of this article will explore each category and systems for improving communication and relationship building in your agency.
- What time is the board meeting?
- Where are we meeting?
- What are we talking about?
- Do I need to be prepared to speak?
- Do we really need to meet?
If you have board members asking questions like these in the lead up to a board meeting, you likely have room to improve your logistical communication. People like to know what to expect, and it’s a good practice to give them the resources needed to come to each meeting prepared.
Here are the best practice standards I recommend implementing when it comes to board meeting communication, specifically. However, these can also be used for committee meetings, events, and other board requirements.
- 3-4 weeks prior to the board meeting: Board President and Executive Director discuss meeting content. You may also include your Board Secretary or Administrative Assistant as well – whoever is responsible for communicating meeting details out to the board.
Many agencies convene their boards during the third week of the month. This is common because by that time financial statements are prepared and can be presented. When that’s the case, the first day of the month can be a good trigger to start preparing for your board meeting.
This planning meeting involves:
- Putting together the board meeting agenda (I’m planning a future article on my recommendations for effective board meeting agendas – watch for it!)
- Determining materials for the board packet and who will collect them
- Deciding who will present on what topics at the meeting
- Assigning communication roles – what conversations need to happen to ensure everyone is fully prepared to speak at the meeting?
In addition, the beginning of the month is a good time to make sure that meeting reminders go out, or calendar invites have all the current attendees included.
- 2-3 weeks prior to the meeting: All presenters have been prepared. The board chair or the exec connects with everyone who will have a presenting role in the meeting. They are coached on the amount of time they will be allotted and the key points to cover. If there is a discussion to follow, clarify who will facilitate the conversation vs who will be engaged in it.
In addition to preparing all presenters, print materials and resources should be gathered during this time frame.
- 1-2 weeks prior to the meeting: Prepare and distribute board packets. By this time you should have confirmed all presenters and gathered all materials for the board packet. A minimum of one week (10 days is better) before the meeting the full board packet is distributed.
Board of Directors meet
- Within 1 week after: Board meeting minutes are distributed. Assignments and action steps are highlighted.
I often see agencies where the only communication that happens with the board is at the board meeting. By implementing the process above you provide at least three additional touch points with your volunteers – save the date reminder, board packet, and meeting follow-up. If that’s where you are at, this is a good first step towards improving communication.
Another thing that I’ve seen is execs who expect their board to handle all of this on their own. While that is definitely the best case scenario, they might need help getting there. With guidance from the Executive Director on these best practices, it’s fully reasonable to get to the point where your Board President or Secretary is leading the charge on these conversations and the communication plan around board meetings.
Like I stated above, leading a board comes down to building healthy relationships with your volunteers. Think about how you do this with staff members. Whether it’s intentional or not, your relationship building process probably includes one-on-one conversations, informally stopping by to chat, team building activities built into meetings, learning about them on a personal level, and more.
It can be a little more difficult to do some of these things with board members, who are not in your office space everyday. But there are likely ideas you can glean from the relationship building you do with staff. Here are a few that come to my mind:
- Include get-to-know-you activities as the opener to your meetings. Ask questions like: what was your first car, who is someone who had a significant impact on you growing up, favorite family vacation, or what they are doing for the weekend.
- Distribute an All About Me document. This can be used to gather information about your volunteers’ families, career, accomplishments, likes and dislikes, and more. A fun idea from this is to have everyone’s favorite snack at board meetings.
- Go to them. Pick one board member a month (or week), and go visit their office. Bring them their favorite (office appropriate) drink. See them on their turf to get to know more about their work.
- Schedule a formal one-to-one with each board member every year. This is when you can ask them about their experience on the board, get feedback on how you are doing as a leader, and understand how they want to be involved in advancing your cause.
Building relationships with volunteers, and making sure they know when and where they need to be are both important. Maybe most important when it comes to communication with your volunteers is making sure they have an understanding of your organization. They cannot advocate for the agency, if they do not understand it.
When educating the board on your agency, it’s important to keep the conversation high level. Drilling down too much may lead them to think they are responsible for operations. Rather, you want to help them to think big picture.
Here are some conversations to have either individually, during orientation, or through your board meetings. These will help prepare your volunteers with knowledge and ideas about how to govern the organization.
- Critical social issue – What is the problem the organization is working to solve? Or, how are you trying to make the world a better place? Educating on the problem is key to evoking passion from volunteers. You can do this by telling them about the issue. Or, you can assign readings or resources to look into. Then have a generative discussion about the challenge during a board meeting.
- Your agency’s solution – Many of the problems facing our communities are huge and multifaceted. Volunteers need to understand the organization’s philosophy and approach to tackling the issue. This can be communicated through conversations and orientation. A powerful activity may be to present a graphic on all the different agencies addressing the problem in your community, and how your approach fits into the broader strategies.
- Program outcomes – Your programming may be a really big part of your organization’s solution to the problem. Consider having board members participate in experiential learning as part of their orientation. Have them engage in your programs or go out to other agencies to see what they are doing. This is where volunteers can sometimes slip into operations mode. Be sure to coach them on thinking big picture about outcomes and measurements. Not on how the curriculum is built and the scheduling of classes.
- Financial strategies – Similarly to programming, volunteers sometimes dig down in the weeds when it comes to finances. Helping them to focus on financial strategies can elevate their thinking. Pose questions about the breakdown of revenue streams and distribution of expenses. What trends are they seeing? How do they compare to the nonprofit industry? What about the for profit sector?
It’s good to include these discussions in orientation and throughout board meetings and one-to-one conversations. Another great tool for educating volunteers and building healthy relationships is through a board retreat. This event can be difficult to pull together, but it has so very many benefits, especially around relationship building.
This might seem like a lot. But I’m here to tell you, building strong and healthy relationships with board volunteers is probably the most important thing an Executive Director or a Board Chair can do to impact the future of the organization. This is how you deepen connection to your cause, invest individuals in the future of your organization, and ensure long term sustainability for your agency.
If you need help developing a communication plan for your governance volunteers, let’s visit! Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call today. Let’s work on developing healthy relationships with your Board of Superheroes!
Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofit leaders.