This post was originally featured in our May/June edition of the Nonprofit Hub Magazine. To get our next issue delivered to your mailbox, sign up here.
When it comes to grading your board of directors, break out the bell curve.
Simone Joyaux, who has worked as a consultant with boards of directors for the past 27 years, said most boards barely earn a passing grade.
“I think most boards are mediocre at best and some of them are completely and totally dysfunctional, and there are darn few that are really, really good,” said Joyaux, who has also served as an executive director, development director and served on multiple boards, including several as board chair.
However, the path from mediocre (or worse) to good can be made with a few easy fixes. Start with board engagement. This begins with three tasks every board member should be doing, including responsibilities that go beyond the boardroom.
1. Attend Board Meetings Regularly
Simple, right? If a board member isn’t at meetings, he/she can’t participate and be an active member. If a board member can’t set aside enough time to attend and participate in meetings, they aren’t a good fit for your board.
2. Be a Good Ambassador for the Organization
This is more than just representing and being a good member of society, Joyaux said. For example, if you are at a dinner party and a guest is talking about how much they love the outdoors and hiking, the board member would be remiss if they didn’t mention the environmental nonprofit they work with.
3. Make a Personal Significant Financial Donation Every Year
This doesn’t mean that a board member has to donate $10,000 each year, but rather what fits in their budget (and is not less than other donations they make to other organizations).
In addition, each board member should be helping out with some aspect of fundraising. Whether it is making thank you calls, serving on an event committee or doing solicitation visits, Joyaux said everyone should be doing their part to help fundraise.
“You don’t have to do every single thing, but you have to do something,” she said.
Even beyond those three basic principles, Joyaux said you can set up policies for the board to operate at a high level.
Be Up Front with Expectations
One problem boards run into is when they are trying to recruit new members they undersell the responsibilities and duties. Joyaux said often they will tell prospects that joining the board is not much work. However, if a board member doesn’t want to fundraise or perform other basic tasks, then they can’t be on the board.
“This is actually serious business,” Joyaux said. “You can’t be on the board if you aren’t willing to inconvenience yourself on behalf of the organization.”
Inconveniencing yourself means board members might have to make some sacrifices. Joyaux used an example of having to skip a Fleetwood Mac concert because it was board meeting night.
Look in the Mirror
Sometimes the problem isn’t with board members not performing, but rather the issue is the board meetings themselves.
“Maybe board members are bored and they don’t like going to board meetings because it’s boring,” Joyaux said.
She said the executive director should work with the board chair to make sure the meetings are engaging and interactive. If all the board members are doing is listening to reports, then they are not serving any real purpose. Try sending out reports ahead of time, so the board can focus on decision making and discussions about the content of those reports.
Also, allow the staff members to empower the board to focus on the governance and stay out of the management duties. If the staff is good at coaching, nurturing and enabling the board to do its job everyone will be more engaged.
Fire Lousy Board Members
If a board member isn’t doing their job, nonprofits have to be willing to cut non-performing board members. Joyaux said you need to figure out if the person is a lousy board member because they don’t know any better or if they are a bully and detrimental to the success of the board. (Before you actually fire someone, talk to them, give them the lay of the land and give them the chance to resign.)
To help with the members that don’t know any better, boards should set up a complete orientation and perhaps a mentoring program. Before you get to that point of firing someone, take this advice:
Provide Feedback Early and Often
Providing feedback is the easiest step to heightening engagement. Talk regularly with individual board members to evaluate how they rate their participation. Give them regular committee work.
Joyaux suggests doing at least an annual performance review with board members to make sure they are meeting the expectations and the relationship is still mutually beneficially. However, if the relationship is sour and not productive, the executive director and board chair should not wait to take action to deal with the issues.
“The whole point is to never have to fire a lousy board member,” Joyaux said “We just have to have done everything correctly in the first place.”