“Supervising” Your Governance Volunteers

These days I visit with a lot of nonprofit leaders. I often hear from Execs who find that leading their Board is extremely frustrating. And they are the same leaders who excel at leading and developing their staff teams. So, starting with last week’s article I have decided to share some of the thoughts I’ve had lately on the similarities between leading a staff team and leading a Board of Directors. 

One of the things that I believe makes it difficult for organizational leaders, is the unique relationship between the Executive Director and the Board of Directors in a nonprofit organization. Technically, a Board of Directors supervises and leads a nonprofit organization. With organizations that are completely volunteer led, this is pretty clear. The governance volunteers are responsible for all the things.

However, when an organization is the size and/or complexity that requires paid staff to operate, things get more complicated. For the sake of this article, I’ll be talking about organizations with at least a few staff, including an Executive Director. In these organizations, the Board of Directors no longer knows everything that is going on within the agency. Therefore, the relationship between the Executive Director and the Board President (or an Executive Committee) becomes the keystone that holds the organization together. 

In a nonprofit, the Board’s role is to look UP and OUT into the community to guide the organization forward. The Executive Director’s job is to look DOWN and IN to the operations of the agency to ensure that quality programs and services are delivered, constituents are taken care of, and the agency is carrying out the vision set forth by the Board. 

You see, the Board of Directors cannot do their job effectively if they do not get information from the Executive Director. Likewise, the Executive Director is not able to appropriately lead the operations without a strong understanding of the vision and strategies of the Board. They rely on each other to drive the work – and have the impact – that the nonprofit exists to provide. 

Organizations that have figured out the nuances of this unique relationship
are the ones that find the most success. 

Individuals join Boards for a variety of reasons. It may be because they have a deep passion for a cause. Or maybe they came out of a difficult situation, and want to help others with similar struggles. Some people see it as their responsibility to help make our world a better place. Whatever the reason, it’s safe to say that no one is born knowing how to be a great Board member, or what an organization needs. 

This is why, even though the Board essentially supervises the Exec, the Exec needs to take some responsibility for leading the board. Execs can benefit from drawing on their staff supervisory skills when it comes to leading their Board. Let me tell you what I mean. 

  • Clear Job Descriptions

    • You wouldn’t hire a staff person without telling them what you need them to do, right? First, it would be difficult to find anyone who would take a job under those conditions. Second, once you had them onboard, how would they know what to do?
    • The same idea applies to your governance volunteers. What does your nonprofit need from the Board? Fundraising? Strategy? Relationships? Workhorses? Getting clear about what is needed from the volunteers will make it easier to go looking for them, and probably easier to recruit the right ones.
    • Sometimes leaders are afraid that if they are blunt and open about their need for something, like fundraising volunteers, that it will scare people away. I say that it doesn’t do the organization much good to bring someone on who is not going to do the work the agency needs. And we certainly don’t want to trick people into joining a board.
    • Don’t soft sell what you really need. Put it right out there. It will eliminate the people who do not want to do that work and attract the ones who do.
  • Clear Expectations

    • When onboarding new staff, you likely tell them both the functions of their job; as well as what is expected of them now that they work for your company. This probably includes things like meeting requirements, policies, procedures, “the way we do things around here” and so on.
    • The Board needs to know what is expected of them too. Especially with smaller nonprofits, the volunteers you recruit will not likely come with any prior Board experience. And even if they do have a history of serving on Boards, every organization is different, and what they need and expect from their Board will be different.
    • In working with organizations and their Boards, I recommend they clarify the expectations they have of their individual Board members in the following categories:
      1. Attendance/Service Commitment 
      2. Executive Director Support
      3. Community Connection
      4. Fiduciary Governance
      5. Intellectual Contributions 
      6. Mission and Outcome Focus
      7. Fundraising and Storytelling
    • Paint a picture of how you want your Board members to act/contribute/engage in each of these areas. Then talk about them. Make sure all Board members know what is expected of them. Use it when you are recruiting and onboarding new folks. 
  • Teach Them

    • Especially if you hire a lot of young staff, you likely know the importance of teaching them how to be good employees; as well as how to do their job. Smart supervisors understand that in order to shape a good employee, you need to be patient, start where they are and support their growth.
    • We’ve already stated that no one naturally knows how to be a great board member. And while the Exec is supervised by that Board, there is a whole lot of “leading up” needed to grow them into effective governance volunteers. This is a little different than the kind of teaching that you do with your staff team, but it’s just as important. Maybe they need to understand how to run quality meetings, how to speak about your organization in public, or how to negotiate the politics of your community or industry.
    • I get very excited about this aspect of leading volunteers! These are valuable skills for enhancing the work of your Board – no question. But they provide so much more! These skills help your volunteers to grow personally and professionally, extending the impact of your organization in unique ways. It also gives them the tools needed to do other great work in your community.
    • Generally speaking, the volunteers who serve on Boards of really big organizations in your community probably put some time in serving smaller organizations. They had to learn how to act, present themselves and share their ideas and insights. It’s not a bad thing to become known as a great place to cut your governance-volunteer-teeth. By doing so, you attract the kind of people who strive to serve on larger boards. Those folks bring energy, connections, and drive.
  • Hold Them Accountable

    • Just like with your staff, sometimes your volunteers will need to be held accountable. This can feel awkward, because – again – they are your supervisors. There is a lot to consider when it comes to this concept, and I’m going to dive deeper in an upcoming article. For now I’ll just say that the easiest way to hold people accountable is by having clear job descriptions and expectations as noted in the first two bullets. Those tools, communicated clearly and regularly, are the foundation of any good accountability system. 
  • Communication

    • I’m also planning to do a separate article on this topic. So I’ll just say that leading people is about relationships. And you can’t have a relationship with people without healthy communication. If you’re only communicating with your volunteers at Board Meetings, you’re missing a key component to leading your Board. Can you imagine only speaking with staff at official meetings? Watch for more on this one. 

The Execs role in leading a Board varies from agency to agency. Some may drive the leadership of the Board, while others may have a supporting role. Either way, staff need to provide some leadership and guidance in order to get valuable contributions from the volunteers. 

The good news is that this does not all fall on the shoulders of the Executive Director. Shaping the Board should be a joint effort between the Exec and the Board Chair. Younger organizations with the founder engaged, may need to do a lot of work to transfer leadership to the Board. More developed organizations may even have a Board Governance Committee, whose entire job is to focus on the health, structure, and culture of the Board.

Leaders who would like to learn more about their role in supervising the Board can email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call today. Let’s connect!

Kim Stewart

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