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, 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. 


Glossary of Terms

I work with a lot of people who are new to the nonprofit field. Some have decided to transition from working in the for-profit world to have more purpose in their work. Others have identified a problem, created a unique solution and started an organization to help make our world a better place. Still others are at a place in their lives where they are ready to start giving back to their community and are stepping into their first board governance role. 

Through working with these “newbies” I often get asked about different terminology. Words or phases that don’t quite make sense to them. Or they believe them to mean something different. It was out of one of those conversations that came the idea to write an article that is really a glossary of terms. 

Working or volunteering in the nonprofit sector can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be challenging to navigate the unique language and culture of these organizations. Understanding the terms and titles used in the nonprofit sector is essential to effective communication. Below are some of the most common terms and titles used in the nonprofit sector.

  • Nonprofit Business – An organization that operates for the benefit of the public, rather than to generate profit for its owners. 
  • 501(c)(3) – A tax-exempt status granted by the IRS to nonprofit organizations that meet certain criteria, such as being organized and operated for charitable, educational, religious, scientific, or literary purposes.
  • Agency, Organization, Nonprofit or Charity – There are terms that refer to a nonprofit business. 
  • Mission Statement – A statement that defines the purpose and goals of a nonprofit organization.
  • Executive Director (ED) or CEO – In an organization with paid staff, this is usually the top staff person and chief spokesperson of a nonprofit organization. These terms are not generally used in smaller, all-volunteer nonprofits. 
  • Program Director (or Manager, or Coordinator) – Whether an organization has paid staff or not, this refers to the individual(s) responsible for overseeing programs or services offered. It’s usually a paid position, but there are many examples of volunteer program positions. 
  • Development Director – Usually a paid position, this role is responsible for managing fundraising and financial development activities of a nonprofit organization.
  • Fundraising – The process of soliciting and collecting donations from individuals, corporations, and other sources to support a nonprofit organization’s mission, programs and services.
  • Philanthropy – The origin of the word philanthropy is Greek and means love for mankind. Today, philanthropy includes the concept of voluntary giving by an individual or group to promote the common good. The giving can include time, talent, and treasure. 
  • Donors – Individuals, foundations, or corporations providing funding to a nonprofit. 
  • Grant – A financial award provided to a nonprofit organization by a foundation, corporation, or government agency to support a specific project or program.
  • Letter of Intent – A donor’s letter or brief statement indicating intention to make a specific gift.
  • Charitable Giving – The act of donating money or assets to a nonprofit organization for philanthropic purposes.
  • In-kind Donation – A non-monetary donation of goods or services to a nonprofit organization, such as donated office space or pro-bono consulting services.
  • Endowment – A pool of funds that are invested to generate income for a nonprofit organization over the long term.
  • Annual Campaign – Fundraising efforts that go to the annual operations of an organization. Sometimes called a Sustaining Campaign
  • Capital Campaign – A fundraising campaign intended to fund a large project, often a building or other physical structures. 
  • Bricks and Mortar – An informal term indicating grants for buildings or construction projects.
  • Donor Stewardship – The practice of cultivating relationships with donors to build trust, engage them in the organization’s mission, and ensure their ongoing support.
  • Volunteer – An individual who donates their time, skills and knowledge to assist a nonprofit organization.
  • Board of Directors – The governing body of a nonprofit organization, responsible for overseeing the organization’s management and making strategic decisions. Every nonprofit organization is required by law to have a Board of Directors. 
  • Board Members – These are volunteer governance leaders of a nonprofit. As a group they are responsible for making strategic decisions and providing oversight. 
  • ByLaws – This is a document that spells out how the Board of Directors and the organization will function. 
  • Board Development – The practice of developing and implementing strategies to recruit, train, and retain volunteers for a nonprofit organization.
  • Articles of Incorporation – A legal document filed with the secretary of state to create a nonprofit corporation. This process is called incorporating. In some states, they are called a Certificate of Incorporation or Corporate Charter.
  • 990 – An IRS form filed annually by nonprofit organizations. 
  • Constituents or Clients – These words refer to those who are served by or who benefit from the work of the nonprofit. They usually refer to people, but it could include animals, groups or other entities. 
  • Stakeholders – Individuals or groups who have a vested interest in the organization. These could include partners, donors, volunteers, clients, staff and community members. An agency’s stakeholders are usually defined by the nonprofit.
  • Audience – This refers to the people that an organization is trying to reach with their messaging. It could be potential donors or volunteers, the entire community, or a specific demographic. 
  • Advocacy – The act of developing and implementing strategies to advance a nonprofit organization’s mission and goals. Advocacy can also represent a cause served by many different nonprofit organizations. 
  • Social enterprise – A social enterprise is a business with social objectives. Maximizing profits is not the primary goal of a social enterprise as is with a traditional for-profit business. And unlike a nonprofit, social enterprises pursue endeavors that generate revenues, which fund their social causes.
  • Impact – Measurement of the value and effectiveness of a nonprofit organization’s programs and services to the community. 
  • Annual report – A document that provides information about a nonprofit organization’s activities, financial performance, and accomplishments during a given year.
  • Capacity building – The process of strengthening a nonprofit organization’s infrastructure, systems, and processes to improve its effectiveness and sustainability.

Wow! This list is so long!!! I could have gone on and on, but I think this is enough for now. If you’re new to nonprofits or just thinking about getting involved, I hope this guide provides a helpful introduction to some of the most common terms and titles used in the sector. Please share with anyone who you think will appreciate the insight. 

Email me at, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to learn more about the nonprofit sector, how to engage, and how you can help make our world a better place! 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofit leaders.

Effective Board Meetings

I believe that this is my last article comparing leading a staff team to leading a team of governance volunteers. If you haven’t been following along, but are curious to learn more, check out my previous articles on this topic:

What I have observed in working with and speaking with hundreds of nonprofit leaders, is an interesting disconnect. Whether it’s Board Chairs, who supervise and lead staff for their paid job, or Executive Directors, who lead a team of employees to deliver the work of the organization. These folks are often highly skilled when it comes to supervising and managing paid staff. Then, when it comes to leading a group of governance volunteers, they struggle. That was the motivation behind my last several articles comparing these two types of teams. 

I often say that all business is people-business. And when it comes to the nonprofit sector, that statement can be multiplied by 100. Everything about leading a nonprofit comes down to the ability to work with people. Relationships drive programming, funding, governance, partnerships, vision, impact and more. It doesn’t matter if you are speaking with your paid staff, volunteers, friends or your spouse, healthy communication is the foundation of strong relationships. 

Board Meetings as Special Events

One of the main communication systems most nonprofits have in place for connecting with their volunteers the regular board meetings. Hopefully this is not the only communication system, but it’s a pretty important one. So much so, that I have always thought of a board meeting as a special event. 

Think for a moment of the  Board of Directors as an adult leadership program. This program supports the volunteers governing the organization, and also helps develop even stronger and more passionate volunteer leaders. Running this program involves engaging different volunteers in a variety of aspects of leading the organization. This could include leading a committee, doing research, advocating for the organization, friend-raising, and more. Then the board meeting is when it all comes together. 

Like with a special event, a lot of planning, communication and preparation go into ensuring that it’s a success. The March article on communication goes into a detailed process on how-to and what-to communicate with your volunteers leading up to and following a board meeting. Ensuring everyone knows when the meeting will be and its content is important, but it’s just a small part of planning this special event. 

Components of Effective Team Meetings

Whether your team is made up of paid staff, or governance volunteers; meetings are a critical tool for effective communication, collaboration, and problem-solving within any organization. An effective meeting requires careful planning and execution to ensure that everyone is engaged, productive, and focused on the team’s objectives. 

  • Clear Objectives: Every meeting should have a clear purpose and objectives. If you don’t know why you are bringing people together, it’s worth evaluating the value of the meeting. Generally with board meetings we are looking to do some or all of these things:
    • Connect volunteers to the mission
    • Ensure everyone is well-informed and on the same page
    • Educate volunteers on their role and/or skills development
    • Problem-solve
    • Team-building
    • Strengthen communication
    • Address official business
  • Agenda: A well-planned agenda is a critical component of an effective team meeting. The agenda should be distributed to all participants a minimum of one week before the meeting, along with any pre-read materials or preparation required. The agenda will help keep the meeting focused and ensure that all relevant topics are covered. My recommended board meeting agenda is as follows, and is similar to my staff meeting agenda:
    • Welcome/Opening – In addition to introductions, this is a great time for a mission moment spotlighting the work of the organization. (Connecting volunteers to the mission.)
    • Segue – Have everyone share some good news, both personal and professional. This provides a transition from what they were doing before, to this group. It also ensures that everyone speaks at least once in the meeting. (Team-building.)
    • Approval of Minutes (Address official business.)
    • Customer/Employee/Board Headlines – Note anything worth celebrating or acknowledging. (Connect to the mission. Team-building. Strengthen communication.)
    • Operational Announcements (Strengthens communication.) 
    • To-Do Items – Review any action items from the previous meeting. Are they completed, progressing, or off-track? Any off-track items drop down to the Discussion section. (Strengthen communication. Identify issues needing problem-solving)
    • Committee Reports – High level presentation of the work of the committees. Vote on initiatives when appropriate. Drop any issues down to the Discussion section. (Ensure everyone is well informed. Problem-solving. Strengthen communication.)
    • Discussion Items – All of the previous items should be addressed fairly quickly, leaving half or even two-thirds of the meeting time to focus on your Discussion Items. If there is a long list, as a group choose the 3 most important topics that need to be addressed. Give each topic 15-minutes. If you get through all items, pick the next most important one to discuss. (Skills development. Problem-solving. Strengthen Communication. Address official business.)
    • Conclusion – At the end of the meeting review any action items or assignments made. Discuss any outward communications that need to come out of this meeting, and who will handle it. (Ensure everyone is well-informed. Strengthen communication.)

You can grab a copy of my recommended board meeting agenda here.

  • Active Participation: Effective meetings require active participation from all team members. Otherwise, why are they there? The meeting leader, usually the Board Chair, can encourage this by asking specific people for their insights, going around the room and having everyone contribute, or breaking up into smaller groups for in-depth discussions. 
  • Time Management: We are all busy and time is a precious commodity. Effective meetings require good time management. Consider assigning a time-keeper to keep things moving along and minimize tangents. Effective meeting time management can bolster engagement when volunteers know their time is respected and used effectively.
  • Action Items: The point of a meeting is to make decisions and move the organization forward. As stated above, capture action items and next steps during the meeting and assign ownership and deadlines. Review at the end of the meeting and put these items on the agenda for next time, so they don’t get lost. This will help to ensure that decisions are acted upon and progress is made.

If you have not been thinking of your board meetings as a special event, give it a try. It establishes a greater sense of importance and production. Running quality board meetings can be one of the most effective strategies you implement in attracting and retaining quality board members. People want to know why they are coming together, they want to use their time effectively, and they want to see progress. Thoughtful and intentional board meetings can be the backbone needed to advance your work. 

Make Sure Everyone is Prepared

In addition to sending out agendas and assignments in advance of the meeting, everyone should know their role in the meeting. If you have a committee chair giving a report, review it with them in advance. Without guidance, they may end up just reading the minutes from their last meeting. Coach any who will be speaking or presenting on what and how they should approach the assignment. There is a bit of orchestrating that goes into delivering a quality board meeting special event. 

Timing is Everything

Finally, I highly recommend that your meetings have a set day and time. This way volunteers can have an entire year’s worth of meetings on their calendars. They can plan around them and communicate when there are conflicts. If yours is a brand new board, and you are still figuring out when that best time to meet is, use the input of the group, and then set the time that works best for everyone. As early as possible, establish that standing day and time. 

When it comes to frequency, I think monthly or every other month is best. Any less frequent, and you totally lose any momentum that you gain at the meeting. There are exceptions. For example, if you bring people in from all over the country/world. Or if your agency’s focus is on an event that happens once a year. For those who bring the board together less than every other month, it will be important to develop a robust committee structure or other work to keep your volunteers connected to your cause and to the important work of governing your agency. 

I love helping organizations evolve their board meetings from “sit & gets” to engaging and robust systems for advancing their work. Email me at, or schedule a Discovery Call to discuss creating board meeting special events that will drive your organization’s success! 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofit leaders.

Dealing with Challenging Board Members

What is a challenging board member? How do they compare to a difficult staff person? Some of the characteristics are probably pretty similar, right? Here are some of the most common complaints I hear about how board members frustrate agency leadership:

  • They don’t do what they said they would do or what they are supposed to do
  • They say one thing and then do another
  • They drop the ball
  • They don’t show up when expected
  • They fail to communicate effectively
  • They stir up conflict with other board members
  • They harbor hidden agendas
  • They dominate conversations and shut down other view points

Anyone who supervises staff can probably relate to one or more (or all) of these scenarios. In my continued comparison of leading staff and leading boards, today’s article is focused on how to deal with difficult volunteers. 

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Before we delve into how to address performance issues, let’s talk about some prevention strategies. By putting systems in place,  you can often stop problems before they occur. 

I often say that all business is people-business, and even more so when it comes to the nonprofit sector. Everything we do, from the people we serve, to the problems we solve, to the donors and shareholders who support our work – it all boils down to relationships. And you cannot have healthy relationships without clear and consistent communication

When it comes to leading board members (and staff), clear communication and healthy relationships are just the beginning. Afterall, volunteers are there for a reason! Establishing agreed upon expectations and consistently holding people accountable will create the foundation needed to drive the work of your board and your organization forward. It also gives clarity to board members who might not really know what is needed from them. 

It’s Not You, It’s Your Behavior

As with any performance issue – staff or volunteer – it’s important to focus on the behaviors. By valuing the individual and working with them to change counterproductive behaviors, you can avoid hurting feelings and often strengthen valuable relationships. Generally speaking, people are associated with your organization because they care about the cause, and making our world a better place. Sometimes they need help understanding what is helpful and what is not. 


Wouldn’t it be great if by putting expectations and communications systems into place, you were guaranteed smooth sailing? Since we are all human with different life experiences, ideas, passions, and priorities – it’s not always that simple. Sooner or later reality sets in and behaviors emerge that make it difficult to move the work of organization forward. 

When (not if) that happens, I recommend following a  process very similar to how we address performance issues with staff. Ideally this process is led by the Board Chair. If that position is not developed to the point of being able to address performance issues, this may fall on the shoulders of the Executive Director. In that case, another volunteer should be present during the conversation, representing the governance leadership. 

Addressing Board (or staff) Issues

  • Don’t delay – create a plan to address the problem as soon as it becomes apparent
  • Define the problem clearly – “Here’s what I perceive is happening”
  • Identify the effect of the problem – “When you do ______________ , the impact is ______________”
  • Listen to the response – “Tell me your thoughts”
    • Avoid getting sucked into a debate or argument
    • Listen to understand; reflect what you’re hearing or sensing
  • Re-examine expectations – “Our agency’s success requires board members to ______________”
  • Describe the specific corrective action – “Here’s what needs to be done differently”
  • Determine if issues exist that limit the volunteer’s ability to change the behavior – “What challenges remain that we need to address?”
  • Seek feedback – “I want to be sure we’ve communicated effectively, let’s summarize the changes we’ve agreed on”
  • Create mutual agreement for implementation – “How will the change be accomplished?”
  • Identify measurement and follow-up – “How will we know we’re being successful?”
  • Summarize the agreement
  • State the consequences of their not making agreed-upon changes – this is not a threat!
    • It’s stating what the organization needs from its governance volunteers
  • End positively – “When I do ______________ and you do ______________ , I’m sure we’ll be successful”
  • Document – since volunteers transition through roles, future leaders need to know about any issues that have been addressed

I often help organizations to put foundational processes in place and to establish a strong offense against board performance issues. Email me at, or schedule a Discovery Call to discuss creating a Board of Superheroes that will drive your organization’s success! 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofit leaders. 

The Art of Board Communication

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: 

  • Logistics
  • 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. 

Relationship Building

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. 

Agency Understanding

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, or schedule a Discovery Call today. Let’s work on developing healthy relationships with your Board of Superheroes! 

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofit leaders. 


Board of Directors Evaluation

More and more lately I’ve been asked to conduct board evaluations. This has been a good way to develop a relationship with an organization, and to help them when they know something “just isn’t right.” Oftentimes a nonprofit leader can tell that things are not going the way they want them to, but they just can’t put their finger on the actual problem (or problems). That’s where I come into the picture!

When I start visiting with an agency, I usually begin by asking them a few questions. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get them thinking and moving in the right direction. More often, those questions lead to even more questions, which leads to me coming in to provide a full evaluation. 

The components of a full evaluation can look different from agency to agency, depending on the size, longevity, whether or not they have paid staff, and more. There are several things I look at when evaluating the health and effectiveness of a board. Some include: 

  • The Executive/Board Chair relationship
  • Executive Director’s thoughts on board leadership
  • Board President’s understanding of board leadership
  • Management tools that have been established 
  • Communication systems
  • Official or implied board expectations
  • The board’s effectiveness in carrying out their responsibilities
  • Whether or not the board is fulfilling their duties

Let’s look at each of these aspects of nonprofit leadership.

Executive Director/Board Chair Relationship

Some organizations have the Executive Director report to an Executive Committee, the Human Resources Committee, or even the whole board. Any of those options are fine. The important thing is that there is a healthy, open and honest relationship between the Executive Director and the person or group they report to. 

This relationship is unique to the nonprofit sector and can be tricky. In many organizations the Executive Director drives the work and leadership of the Board of Directors. The tricky part comes up because the board is actually the supervisor of the exec. So the board supervises the individual who informs and guides their work. Even in agencies where the board is largely self-governing, the exec and the board rely on one another to drive their pieces of the organization.

This relationship is key to the success of the nonprofit. It requires mutual respect and an understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Clear, open and consistent communication is the foundation to ensuring relationship success. 

Executive Director’s Thoughts on Board Leadership

Whether the exec likes it or not, some portion of their job involves board leadership. Every organization is different and therefore, what each nonprofit needs from their board is different. Since the Executive Director works in the agency every day, she or he is best informed about what the organization needs from its volunteers. The board looks to the exec to shape their work. 

Additionally, no one is born knowing how to be a good board member. Even when someone comes to a board with experience serving on other Boards of Directors, it doesn’t mean they know how best to serve this organization. 

When evaluating this aspect of an agency, I consider whether the exec wants to be completely hands off, or if they are trying to micromanage the volunteers. Either can lead to challenges. Going back to the previous point, we look at the communication that has happened between the board and the exec. Have they addressed what roles each will fill? If not, how does anyone know what they should be focusing their energy on? 

Board President’s Understanding of Board Leadership

What does the board president believe their role is? Are they there to just lead meetings? Should they be driving a set of strategies? Can they address volunteers who are not contributing? Not to sound like a broken record on these first three bullets, but it all comes down to the relationship and communication between the exec and the board. 

Management Tools

In case it hasn’t been clear so far – effective nonprofit leadership boils down to relationships. However, putting tools and processes in place can help ensure that the work that goes into building great relationships is well managed. Pieces that I recommend boards establish include: 

      • Clear board expectations
      • A process for deepening connections
      • System for tracking prospects
      • Clear and thoughtful communication systems
      • A thoughtful and thorough on-boarding process
      • Professional and effective board meetings 

Without some of these basic processes in place agencies often end up spinning their wheels. They have great conversations with no system for following up. They create great connections, but lose track of the individuals. Or they attract really great board or donor prospects, and end up scaring them away by appearing unorganized and unprofessional. 

Communication Systems

I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. A communication system does not need to be elaborate. However, it does need to be thoughtful and intentional. Without a plan, emails can spiral out of control. Pretty soon, no one wants to be associated with the organization because they cannot handle the number of communications they receive. 

Well functioning organizations come to an agreement as a board/staff team about how often they communicate and in what manner. They establish an understanding about etiquette. When there is a real emergency, they can deviate from their plan, otherwise they trust their system and make adjustments as needed. 

Board Expectations

I touched on board expectations under the management tools section. Like communication, this component is so important that I wanted to call it out separately as well. 

No one likes to commit to something if they don’t know what they are getting themselves into, right? This is especially true with joining boards. When a new board member is recruited, there’s a good chance that this is their first experience serving on a Board. It’s an unknown for them. Using Board Expectations as a recruiting tool can answer a ton of questions for them and help them to make a good decision about getting involved. 

Your expectations can be used for evaluating the board’s performance as a whole and as individuals. You can also reference it when dealing with issues of engagement or to raise the bar for the board team. As an organization’s needs change, board expectations are easy to change and update. Expectations should tie directly to what an agency needs its volunteers to be doing in order to advance the cause.

Board Responsibilities

 Every board has three overarching responsibilities. The governance volunteers are responsible for the mission, vision, and strategies. They ensure the organization has the resources (usually people and money) to deliver the mission, vision, and strategies. And they are responsible for making certain that the organization is operating legally and in a fiscally appropriate manner. 

These three functions are consistent across all Boards of Directors. A board evaluation looks at the extent to which the board owns these responsibilities. Sometimes it is a matter of seeing if they even understand that they should be owning them. 

Board Duties

Lastly, I like to review the board’s relationship to the duties of a Board of Directors. Like board responsibilities, duties are the same from one organization to the next. Responsibilities differ from duties in that responsibilities are functions, things the board does. The duties of the board speak more to how the board conducts itself.

Board duties include: Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience. Again, when evaluating an organization, I gauge their understanding of these duties, and their commitment to them. 

Conducting a board evaluation involves interviews with organizational leaders, review of documents, and sometimes attending a board meeting. It concludes with a report to the organization outlining and prioritizing opportunities for improvement. When a nonprofit knows that their board needs work, but they don’t know where to begin, an evaluation is a great place to start! 

Do you know of a Board of Directors that could be stronger, more efficient, or more effective? I’d love to visit with them to see if I can get them moving in the right direction. Email me at, let’s chat!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.

Onboard New Board Members

When you are a busy nonprofit leader, securing a new board member might seem like an item to check off your “to do” list. And it is, to an extent. However, if you stop there, you are jeopardizing all of the hard work that you have put into finding and recruiting qualified board members. 

I am frequently asked about how to retain board members. As if there is one thing that you could do to keep a good board member. The reality is that retaining board members takes the culmination of many things. Some of them are within our control, and some are not. A board member being transferred out of state is not something that we can control. Treating board members respectfully and valuing them is totally within our control. 

In this article we’ll look at what to do once someone agrees to join your board. A professional onboarding process can work wonders in helping a new governance volunteer to feel welcomed, comfortable and valued. All key components in retaining a volunteer long-term. 

When someone agrees to join your board, there are the logistical things to do:

  • Add them to your board roster
  • Order them a name tag (if that’s something you provide)
  • Ensure they have all meeting dates and other commitments
  • Complete any necessary paperwork
  • Etc. 

After you get those tasks handled, then it’s time to think about the experience you create for your new board member. Consider putting an onboarding plan together that includes: an announcement, personal support, and education


Does the new board member just show up to the first meeting? Or do you send a notification out to the board and staff announcing the new member? Needless to say, an advance notice is preferable. Other ways of making a newbie feel welcome could include a sign as they enter your facility, put their name on a marquee, or an announcement in your newsletter, on your website, or in the local paper. 

Take into consideration the personality and the culture of your board/agency as you send out the announcement. Should it be strictly professional and highlight the new volunteer’s accomplishments? Do you want to make it playful with fun facts? Does it make sense to share personal attributes about the new addition to your board? The answer will be different for each agency and each board. It may even tie to your mission. For example, if you promote reading, maybe the announcement shares the new board member’s favorite children’s book. 

Personal Support

Joining a new group of any kind can be daunting. It’s even more intimidating when everyone but you seems to know what’s going on. There are several ways to mitigate that uneasy feeling of walking into a room of strangers. Assigning a veteran board member as a mentor or a “board buddy” can help with the transition to a new group. 

This can be as informal or as formal as you and the board would like for it to be. The pair can meet prior to the new board member’s first meeting, so there’s a friendly face when they arrive. They can sit together during the meeting, to help with clarifying any questions that arise. And they can connect afterwards to explore how the experience was and continue to help answer questions. 

You can also assign a staff or volunteer to serve as the new volunteer’s personal host. Their job may be to introduce them around, and give context to the different players involved in the meeting.


There is a lot to learn when joining a new board. Many describe it as drinking from a firehose. Finding the balance between giving them what they need to know in order to be effective, and not overwhelming them and scaring them away, is a tricky balance to find. Again, this will be different for every agency, and you will need to figure out what is right for yours. Here are a few ideas for methods of educating your new volunteers. 

  1. Orientation: If you bring in a new “class” of board members all at the same time, it may make sense to do a formal group orientation. It can range from a couple of hours to half a day. Involving staff and volunteers; as well as stories and activities, can reinforce learning and make it an impactful experience.
  2. Series of Conversations: When you bring new members in individually, it can be a little more difficult to keep it from being a total information-download. Think about breaking it up into different sessions, and again involve other staff and volunteers in the delivery. Spreading it out over a month or two can give the individual the opportunity to absorb all the new information.
  3. Self-guided Content: Another option is to create a series of emails, videos, or even podcasts that the new volunteer can consume over a period of time. This option is going to be less personal, and there’s the risk that the new person will not commit the time to review the materials. A board manual (print or online) that you give them to read would also fall in this category.

Some things you may want to include in your new board education are:

  • Why you exist – what is the critical social issue your agency addresses
  • How you help solve the problem for your community
  • What programs and services you deliver
  • The impact that your agency provides to the community
  • Key messaging
  • Review board expectations again
  • Duties and purpose of the board
  • How your board operates
  • Logistics – staff and board contact information, key dates, access to any portals or technology the board uses, and any other materials they will need

Finally, you might consider putting together a goodie bag for when they come to their first meeting. The goodies could include an agency t-shirt, their name tag, a notepad and pen, candy, and other swag. (This would be a great project for a board member who really loves to help with recognitions and appreciations.) 

How you bring a new person into your organization sets the tone for their experience. Want to retain your board members? Put intentional thought into all aspects of the experience you are providing for them. If you would like help putting together an on-boarding process that’s right for your agency, I would love to visit. Email me at, let’s connect!

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses. 


Engaging Prospective Board Members

In this article I talked about where to find prospective board members. (Incidentally, the sources for finding board members are also a great place to look for good donors.) Then, in this one I talked about the importance of clarifying your board expectations. Afterall, you wouldn’t take a paid job without knowing what the company was expecting from you. Similarly, no one wants to get into a volunteer position and be caught off guard by what is expected of them.

Today’s article is going to look at those crucial next steps. Once you know what you expect from your board members, and you have some ideas about where to look for and recruit them – you need to be ready with a plan for what to do with them once you start attracting them. 

I have observed leaders who meet someone – who has a little bit of interest in their organization – and they ask them to join their board right away. Finding, recruiting, and keeping good board members is hard work. It’s understandable that leaders may want to try and capture those interested as quickly as possible. However, slowing this process down is a much better approach. Let’s explore why. 

Recruiting Your Boss

Often, especially in younger nonprofits, the Executive Director does a lot of the work of recruiting the board. It often becomes just one more of the millions of things that she or he needs to work on. The very top reason to slow down the board recruitment process is because, as the ED, you are essentially recruiting one of your bosses. It’s safe to say that you probably want to make sure that you bring on someone who you trust, who you know will make decisions with the best interest of the organization in mind, and who is volunteering for your organization for the right reasons. 

Relationships Drive the Work

The work of a nonprofit organization is highly relational. Successful organizations engage more and more people in the important work of making the world a better place. Strong and healthy boards help to share the story of the organization, connect to partners, recruit more people to engage, and ensure impact and sustainability. Discovering how a prospective board member might contribute in an effective way takes time. It requires multiple interactions to develop a relationship and understand how their involvement can be mutually beneficial. 

Good Decisions Take Time

Just like you want to make a good decision for your agency, you also want to be sure that the prospect makes a good decision for themselves. They need to make a connection to your cause; determine if they have the time, energy and capacity to serve; and decide if your board is a good fit for them. It can be very disruptive to bring on a new board member, have them stay only a few months, and then lose them. 

For these reasons and many more, I recommend that organizations put a recruitment process in place. Having a process doesn’t mean that you cannot deviate from it, it just means that you have a plan for how to develop a relationship with a potential board member. 

Every organization needs to determine how their process looks. Many factors will determine what is right for each agency. An organization’s size, maturity, current programming, current board health, needs, and challenges are just a few of the things to consider. 

When working with agencies I recommend a minimum of 3 to 4 interactions prior to inviting someone to serve on the board. In the generic example below I’ve outlined some basic elements to include.

Board Recruitment Process

  • You get a Lead. This can come from networking, through your programming, a name presented by a volunteer, etc. 
  • Qualify that the Lead seems like a good prospect. Start (or continue) the relationship-building process. Take them out for coffee or lunch. Begin to share the idea of them serving on your board. 
  • If appropriate, invite them to observe a program or operations. Help them get a feel for the work that you do. During the observations make sure that someone hosts them. You want to clearly explain the methodology of your work, what sets your agency apart, and the intentional things you are doing to make a difference. 
    • Agencies that serve highly vulnerable populations may have to find different ways of educating a prospect about their work. 
  • Again – when appropriate, have them visit and observe a board or committee meeting. This is a good way for them to get a feel for the culture and how they might fit into it. 
  • Follow-up with the prospect to answer any questions, review expectations in detail, and explore how they are feeling about the possibility of getting involved. 
  • If they are interested, present to the board for a vote.
  • Officially invite them to join – OR – thank them for going through the process. 
    • A future article will talk about what to do with them once you invite them to join and they say: “Yes!” 
    • If you need to turn them away, share honest feedback. If the door is open to future involvement, let them know. If they are not a match, be clear about that too. 

As you consider who to bring into your organization, there is a lot to think about. Are they a good fit? Do they have skills that your agency needs? Can they help with connections, open doors, or raise money? These are all important questions you need to ask. I believe the most important thing to look for is passion. Do they care about the issue your agency is addressing and your strategies for solving it? If not, they may not bring their best self to the table and they may not contribute consistently. 

When you have a great first “date,” do the next logical step and ask them to get together again. Bringing someone on your board is not as significant as getting married. So after a few good “dates” it may make sense to start talking about taking the relationship to the next level; ie: getting them involved as a volunteer. Just as you should hire slowly and choose a life partner slowly – take your time bringing on new board members. 

If your organization needs help creating a recruitment process that is right for you, I would love to help! Email me at to learn more. Let’s connect!

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses. 


Board Expectations

A few weeks ago I wrote about the challenge of finding volunteers to serve on boards of directors. In that article I mentioned that an important component in finding and recruiting board members is clarifying the expectation your organization has for them. After all, it’s hard to commit to something when you don’t know what it entails. Clarifying your agency’s board expectations is a foundational piece of developing a strong board. 

An organization can set any expectations that are relevant and important to them. They can be as simple or as complex as needed. Personally, I like to outline board expectations into these seven categories:

  • Attendance
  • Executive Director Support
  • Community Conduit
  • Fiduciary Governance
  • Intellectual Contributions 
  • Mission and Outcome Focus
  • Fundraising and Storytelling

Organizations that take the time to clarify each component for their board will have a great tool for recruiting, managing and accountability. Because of the unique nature of nonprofits – where the Executive Director often directs the work of the board, which is also their boss – this tool can be crucial to ensuring that the board can hold itself accountable. Let’s explore each of these categories and what can be included. 


In the simplest of terms, attendance means showing up to board meetings. You may want to set a percentage of meetings they are expected to attend. It is a good practice to have set board meetings, held on the same day each month and at the same times. 

Frequency of board meetings should be set based on the needs of the organization and the work of the board. That being said, I generally recommend monthly or every other month. When a group meets less frequently it can be difficult to maintain engagement and connection. However, sometimes geographic constraints or the work of the organization may require fewer meetings. In those cases it might make sense to have longer meetings. 

In addition to attendance at board meetings, an organization may want to set expectations around attending committee meetings, special events, trainings, programming and more. Some agencies require a minimum number of hours from their volunteers each month. 

This category is also where you can define your board terms. Spell out when terms begin and end, how long they are, the ability to serve consecutive terms, and maximum length a board member can serve.

Partner with Executive Director

Running a nonprofit is a big job! Supporting the Executive Director is one of the most helpful things a board can do. When given projects or tasks it should be an expectation that the board member executes them completely and on time. Often if a board member doesn’t follow through, that work falls on the Exec. That puts the Exec in a very awkward position of having to hold one of their bosses accountable or just doing it themselves. 

Secondly in this category, there should be the expectation that the board drives the strategies of the organization. The more that the governance volunteers can focus on this aspect of the organization, the more the Exec can focus on the operations. Looking outward and focusing on strategies to advance the work of the organization is an expectation of the board. 

Lastly, no one knows everything or can have their finger on the pulse of what is going on in the community all the time. Board members should be available to the Exec when they need advice, insight or special expertise. Volunteers must give their input with the best interest of the organization as their top priority.  

Conduit to the Community

Having a board of directors multiplies the number of eyes, ears and voices in the community on behalf of an agency. Board members should be out, seeing what is going on in the community related to the work of the organization, listening to what people are saying about it, and sharing about the outcomes and impact. In addition, they should be bringing information back to the board to discuss and help with decision making and strategizing. 

Some organizations utilize their volunteers to promote their work. This can involve expectations around attending networking groups or service clubs, or even hosting house parties to educate the public on the organization. Other agencies have their board submit names for “friend raising.” This involves bringing more people into their circle of organizational advocates, to nurture them into volunteers, donors, or even future board members. There are organizations that require a board member to secure their successor before their term expires. These are all options to consider when developing expectations.

Fiduciary Governance

This component is a little more tricky to quantify and measure. The board is responsible for the financial and legal integrity of the organization. Generally the Treasurer takes the responsibility of reviewing financial statements and interpreting them for the larger board. The expectation of the board is that they make decisions that are in the best financial and legal interest of the organization. It is expected that they led from a place of selflessness. 

Intellectual contributions

Every board meeting should include some sort of generative discussion. It is best if the discussion is around strategy and organizational advancement; however, sometimes the input of volunteers on operational topics is important. That being said, board members should be prepared for discussion and ready to contribute their thoughts, perspectives and ideas. 

Not everyone is comfortable sharing in large groups. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have valuable input. Some volunteers may submit their thoughts in writing after they have had time to process the discussion. When measuring board effectiveness it can be important to recognize and honor these differences in contribution styles. 

Mission and Outcomes Focused

Every governance volunteer should take the time to understand the critical social issue that the organization is working to address; as well as the unique way they are tackling it. They should be familiar with and support policies. And they should understand the organization’s needs. 

The staff (whether paid or volunteer) are responsible for the operations and program/service delivery. It is the board’s job to make sure that the programs/services are fulfilling the mission. They are the ones who need to be driving the measurement of program impact and connecting it to the purpose of the organization. 

Lastly in this section, the board is responsible for ensuring clarity around the values of the organization. Clarifying values helps with decision making, recruiting staff and volunteers, and communicating who you are and what you do. Board members are expected to be the ones setting the example of how the organizational values look in action. 

Fundraising and Storytelling

Board members should be expected to give a personally meaningful financial donation to the organization. This is important for so many reasons! Why should anyone else give to a nonprofit if the governance board doesn’t feel strongly enough about the cause to give? Why would a grantor award a funds to an organization that doesn’t have a passionate and committed board? It must start with the board. 

In addition to giving, board members should be expected to use their network, connections, and circle of influence to advance the organization. This includes asking them to contribute. I believe that this is one of the most valuable aspects of the nonprofit sector. They are compelled to tell people how they are making the world a better place and asking them to come alongside and help. 

This can be challenging for young nonprofits, or organizations that attract volunteers who have never served on a board. That’s where the phrase “personally meaningful” or “personally significant” can be helpful. An agency may set their initial expectation at $10/month, then ask those with greater means to consider an additional personally significant contribution. Special events can be a good place for volunteers to practice their storytelling skills and work on “friend raising” before they advance to fundraising. 

If the cause is important and the organization is making a difference, every board member needs to be giving. Period. 

You may notice that none of this is about daily operations. That’s because that is not the board’s role. However, with very young or very small nonprofits, there can be some cross over. As you develop your board expectations, I recommend you keep them focused on the governance side of the organization. This keeps it clean, and if/when the organization grows, the board will know what is expected of them in their role. 

Once you and your board have established their expectations, create a tool for tracking. Quantify as much as you can and put it in a spreadsheet. Put each board member’s name down the side and regularly evaluate how everyone is doing. At a minimum the board president/chair should look at it quarterly. You can also include it into your board packets. That way everyone knows where they stand and they can help hold each other accountable. One less awkward job for the Exec to do! 

Does your organization need help establishing expectations. These can be challenging conversations. It can help to have someone from outside facilitate the discussion. If so, I would love to help! Email me at to learn more. Let’s connect!

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.

What is the Right Culture for YOU?

Culture is a word that is thrown around a lot. Many people use it to describe work environments, businesses and organizations. Most people probably have a vague idea of what it means, but not necessarily a concrete idea about how you impact culture. 

In the past I have written articles on culture, which you can find here and here. Both of these are good, if I do say so myself. Today’s article is on the same topic, but I want to shift the focus just a little. Today we will look into how to create the right culture for your business. 

Not all cultures are created equally. They are not one size fits all. When people talk about a company having a good culture or a bad culture, what are they really saying? Simplified, if a culture matches your values and beliefs, you probably describe it as a “good culture.” Conversely, if they don’t align, you likely consider it a “bad culture”. The tricky thing is, everyone’s beliefs and values are different. 

This begs the question – how do you create a culture to fit everyone. And the answer is – you don’t. You create a culture that is right for your company. Then the culture attracts the kind of people who have values and beliefs that align with you and your business. Before we jump into creating a culture that is right for your business, let’s touch on what happens when you don’t work at your culture. 

It Is What It Is

If you do not intentionally create a culture, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have one. Rather, one evolves – unchecked. In this case, the values that emerge often come from the squeakiest wheel or the biggest personality. And that’s not always good. In fact, this is often how toxic, misogynist, and racist cultures come about. 

Without the clarity of company values – which are actively discussed and referenced – one person can start a culture where telling off-color jokes is the norm. Or a culture where the default mode is to complain about everything. Or one where backstabbing and gossip take over. Almost certainly, none of these are the values you want your company to be known for. But if these traits are emerging, it’s a guarantee that people both inside and outside the business describe your culture negatively. 

How To Get the RIGHT Culture

There are a lot of well-known and broadly studied cultures out there: 

  • Zappos is known for being weird, happy, and fun
  • Southwest Airlines employees are silly and empowered
  • Twitter staff are hardworking, smart, and passionate 
  • Google attracts the best of the best with tons of perks and benefits

What all these companies have in common is that they have taken the time to figure out what they value and how they want to be perceived. Then they keep these values and their identity alive. 

What Do You Value? 

There are several ways to determine your values. Everything from multi-day, facilitated leadership retreats to sitting in a coffee shop with a notepad. It’s up to you to determine the right method for your business. 

I’ll share one activity that leaders often find helpful. Think of the employee in your company who represents the image you want people to have when they think of you. List out all of the characteristics that make that person a great employee. Write down everything you can think of. Then add anything else you wish that person possessed. As you review this list, you will start to formulate an idea about what you value. 

Empowered with this description, start to write words or phrases that you would like your company to be known for. Between 3 and 7 is a good list. Take time to connect a statement or story to each value. Your culture should be starting to emerge. Don’t feel like you need to do this all in one sitting. Record your ideas, then let them percolate for a while. Come back to them and see if they still resonate, or if you want to add to or change them. 

One Size Does Not Fit All

This was stated earlier, but it’s worth repeating. Zappos, Southwest, Twitter and Google all sound like fun, cool places to work. If fun and cool is important to your brand, great! Go in that direction. However, many brands need to be taken very seriously. For others safety might be the most important thing they are known for. And others need to have a reputation of efficiency. Those values might not be as sexy as “fun” and “cool,” but they are just right for certain brands. 

Never Stop Talking About Them

Once you have clear values that are just right for your business, they need to be ubiquitous. They should be used in recruiting and hiring. They should be present in decision making and staff meetings. Your values should be posted throughout your facility and included in many, if not all, communications. 

It’s the talking about them that makes them real. Unless you want your values to be a “flavor of the month” initiative, you need to bring them to life. As the leader, you will want to memorize your values, and have several stories and antidotes demonstrating them. Celebrate values in action. Reward the behaviors you want to see. Own your culture by knowing who you are as a company. Be true to your values. And tell everyone about them. This is what will shape your culture.

While this process is simple, it’s not easy. If you are interested in working on creating a culture you are proud of, email me at Let’s connect!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.