7 Quick Tips for Creating Change on your Board

I’m talking to a lot of nonprofit Executive Directors these days.  

Well, not as much talking to them as listening to them.  Listening to them explain what it’s like in their shoes.  Like, cut the BS, no sugar coating, here’s the real deal scoop on being an ED today.

And you probably won’t be surprised to hear one of the top frustrations of the job is …the board.

While specific frustrations vary (from “we’ve tried everything under the sun to get them to fundraise,” to “I never thought I’d have to beg for a freakin’ performance review!”), the central challenge I’m hearing boils down to one thing:

  • How do I get more of what I need from the board?

So, that’s the question I’m tackling right here, right now with my 7 quick tips for creating real, lasting change on your board.

1. Get clear about whether you’re frustrated with your board or your board members (or both). 

It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

Your board has a set of collective responsibilities – set mission and direction, ensure adequate financial resources, select, support, and evaluate you as the CEO, build a competent board, and provide financial and program oversight (there are more, but these are the biggies).  The board primarily fulfills these duties at board meetings, when they hold discussions, mandate actions, take votes, create policies, review and approve plans, etc.

Your individual board members also have responsibilities, such as preparing for and turning up to meetings, fulfilling any committee assignments, giving and getting donations (in line with your board fundraising policy), and building relationships to benefit the organization.

Where’s the rub for you?

2.  Build very close, “tell it how it is” relationships with at least a couple of board members.

Open, honest, and direct conversations will be the springboard for creating change with your board.  How many board members could you call up right now and engage in that type of authentic dialogue?  If the number is low (or zero), you’ve got some relationships to build.  Start with the low-hanging fruit – the board members you like, those who seem to approach things the same way as you.  Schedule a lunch, don’t set an agenda, and talk.

3.  Make clean requests and offers.

Voicing a frustration without making a request or an offer is just complaining.  And nobody likes a complainer. Before raising your board frustration, take some time to get clear about what request you want to make of the board or particular board members, and what you’re willing to offer.

A clean request sounds like this … “Will you, Mr. X, (please) do Y by Z day?” (and, you get a clean answer – yes, no, or counter offer).

A clean offer sounds like this … “I will do Y by Z day.” (and, you do it).

4.  Put yourself in the board’s shoes.

What’s it like over there?  How it the board looking at this?  Is it frustrating to them as well, or are they happy as clams?  What information do they have, and what information might they lack?  What relevant experience and expertise do they have, and what experience and expertise might they lack?  What challenges and limitations do they face?

Now, use what you’ve seen through their eyes to build connection, be sympathetic, let them know you hear them, and make a damn good case for why things need to change.

5.  Put yourself in the organization’s shoes.

Through this lens, you can see it all – your nonprofit’s mission, history, people, relationships, programs, culture, systems, processes, etc.  When you zoom out and take this larger systems view, what do you notice?  How is your board’s performance impacting and being impacted by these other parts of your organization?

Each of these organizational components can be used as a lever to create change with your board.  So, get outside of the board box, start to experiment, innovate, and raise the bar elsewhere, and enjoy the positive side effects with your board.

6.  Identify expectations and turn them into agreements.

What do you expect from your board?  A lot, right?  Take a few minutes here and jot down a list of your top expectations.  Now, next to each expectation, note what written agreement(s) you have with your board relative to that expectation.  And lastly add a “+” if that agreement is being kept or a “-“ if either party isn’t delivering on their promise.

Here’s an example (from the dream board):

Expectation: The board will raise lots of $$; Agreements: Board giving policy; personal annual pledges. +

Now, take stock of any expectations that are lacking a formalized, written agreement, and get to agreeing.  And if those agreements aren’t being held (on either side), don’t let it slide any more.  Have a conversation and get the board to recommit, or create a new agreement.

7.  Get new blood on the board.

As you work to transform your board, some of your current board members will adapt and change, and others will hold on to the “old way of doing things.”  The easiest and quickest way to create change on the board is to find new board members who will join and jump right into the new way of doing things. Be strategic and think about what types of people those are. Don’t think just in terms of professional skills or experience.  While that’s important, also make sure you’re getting people with the personality, energy, and approach that will define the new way of working on the board.

Now, I’d love to hear from you!  

In the comments section below, tell us your top tips for getting more of what you want from your board.  

Thanks as always for your contribution!


P.S:  Curious why I’m talking to so many Executive Directors?  Stay tuned for an announcement about a killer new program I’m launching exclusively for EDs who are ready to turn it up a few notches.

P.P.S:  Know a nonprofit Executive Director who is ready to stop struggling with their board?  Please share this blog post with them today!  And encourage them to sign up for our bi-weekly emails (below).  Thanks!