Field Notes from an Executive Director: Help Your Board Help You

I’ve had the privilege of volunteering and sitting on over 10 nonprofit boards as a member of my community. As I’ve transitioned into becoming a nonprofit professional the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to assemble a board of my own—well, two actually.

Since Nonprofit Hub has become its own 501(c)3, the staff has been able to come down from the ivory tower and actually live the life of a nonprofit professional. So I share with you first-hand experiences of the dynamic relationship between the board of directors and the executive director.

Oh, and we also have the advantage of interviewing the best nonprofit thought leaders in the world for our articles. So I was able to get great advice from them as we formed our board and will now share with you.

Help your board help you

Strong and successful nonprofit organizations have a commonality—good leadership. This applies to the executive director as well as the board. And as the executive director (hopefully you’re sticking around) you’re the continuity in board transitions. So it’s up to you to set the tone for how the board should operate.

You achieve this by developing an amazing onboarding process. If you don’t have a well-trained board, they can actually go rogue or even get in your way of progress. I have executive director friends that say this is the most important part of board development.

And before you train your board members you have to recruit the right people. No board member should accept a position—nor should you offer a position—without knowing what their primary role on the board will be.

The power of recruitment

Robbe Healey, who serves on the AFP Ethics Committee, believes that many of the ethical problems that nonprofits run into can be prevented by a well-oriented board. Healey warns that filling seats with “warm bodies” for the sake of reaching a magic number instead of recruiting those who are invested in your mission will help your organization navigate the rough waters if ethical disasters arise.

When it’s time to recruit, you typically should look to individuals outside the nonprofit sector. These people will bring perspective unique from those of us living our day-to-day in the nonprofit sector, and provide invaluable insights to your organization. But this also means that they might not be familiar with many of the things nonprofit organizations have to do that the for-profit side doesn’t need to worry about. If they aren’t properly trained on these issues, they could be getting in the staff’s way, or even harm the organization without knowing it.

Train for long-term success

Even with the best recruitment strategies in the world, the importance of board training can’t be stressed enough. Healey shared a story about receiving a grant to purchase a wheelchair-accessible van. After buying the van for significantly less than what they had planned, her associate, who came from the finance world, suggested that they use the excess grant money to insure the van and pay for operating costs. Makes sense, right? Luckily, Healey knew she needed to touch base with the grant-giver first, to get approval. The grantor decided that they didn’t want the money to go towards insurance and operating costs. If her associate had gone ahead and used the money for the overhead, the organization could have faced legal issues for misappropriation of the grant funds.

This all ties back to educating your board. Healey thinks that board members always know what they should be doing, but they don’t know how to do it—because nobody has ever taught them. To make the situation worse, many people don’t want to admit they don’t know how. So, as the nonprofit staff, we have to be better about educating our board members on how to do what we want them to do, and create a healthy culture for those members to ask questions and learn on the fly.

Marc Pitman, a nonprofit leadership expert, put it best when he said “No board member wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘How can I be a lousy board member?’ and no Executive Director wakes up in the morning thinking ‘How can I sabotage this nonprofit?’”

Create an environment of clear communication

Pitman also stresses the importance of good communication between the executive director and the board. Without quality communication, the two groups could be working in two different directions, and that only leads to more tension and less progress. Even with something as broad as strategic planning, there can be a discourse. The strategy often lives in the Executive Director’s head, but they fail to sit down with the board and refine those thoughts and get it out of their head and onto paper.

How you train your board depends on the needs of your specific organization, but the importance of purposeful board training can’t be stressed enough. If you’re still struggling with board training, hiring, and management, check out our podcast series with more episodes on nonprofit boards and feel free to connect with me on Twitter.

Originally posted 12.27.16—Updated 12.5.17