A recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy by Maureen West titled “Charities Find Ways to Give Board Members Bigger Roles in Policy” caught our attention. So much of the work we have done with our clients for the past 23 years is meeting with the board members of nonprofits to discuss fundraising strategy and the comprehensive role they play in the organization. Engaging and managing volunteer leadership is critical for a nonprofit executive to ensure not just a successful development operation, but a successful operation overall. As The Chronicle observes, there is an evolving relationship between nonprofit executives and their board members. “Charities that recognize what trustees want from their board service will build stronger relationships with them.” West outlines four ways nonprofits can improve the relationship with their boards. Below is our summary with some additional insights.what trustees want from their board service will build stronger relationships with them.” West outlines four ways nonprofits can improve the relationship with their boards. Below is our summary with some additional insights.
1. Challenge the Board: Trustees want to be involved in the big decisions as they take shape. High achieving individuals tend to serve on boards and nonprofits should cater to this by giving their volunteers the chance to accomplish something during their term. Challenging board members with some of the major business decisions a nonprofit faces and asking for their input and advice will satisfy their desire to be involved beyond basic governance and financial support. Another tactic is to keep trustees briefed on the state of philanthropy on a national and regional level. Trustees will feel they are part of something bigger and can think more strategically. (At The Curtis Group we give presentations and provide a summary by sector of Giving USA on an annual basis to our clients. We recommend nonprofits share these results with their boards in order to give a broad perspective of philanthropy in our country.)
2. Conduct Meaningful Meetings: West advocates that in order to nurture a good relationship with trustees, nonprofits must design their meetings for meaningful participation. There should be plenty of time for dialogue and interaction with board members. Reading of routine minutes and committee reports should be concise to allow for more constructive conversations about more challenging topics for trustees’ advice and ideas.
3. Create Constructive Tension: Developing strong board committees, an exercise The Curtis Group engages in frequently in our capacity-building work with nonprofits, is a way to involve more trustees on a more intimate level and it allows them to take additional ownership of sub sections of the board’s work where they have a personal interest. It also avoids larger discussions with the full board where there is more opportunity for disagreement. Committee chairs should be responsible for reporting at the full board meetings (not the nonprofit’s staff) and for making the decisions that fall under their purview which helps create quorums. As a result, the length of board meetings will decrease which everyone surely welcomes.
4. Encourage Differing Perspectives: Healthy tension between a board and the nonprofit staff is normal, says West. Board members bring a community-based perspective to discussions. Trustees should be inquisitive and push back on issues when they feel something is being treated too routinely or needs further examination. We are seeing this more so with the younger generation of board members who prefer hands-on involvement and are very comfortable posing the tough questions when they don’t necessary agree with a decision. Having a diversity of age on boards is becoming more important as younger volunteers help keep nonprofits more relevant, especially when it comes to social media and other digital communications.