Written by; Gina Bongiovi, Managing Partner of Bongiovi Law Firm
Back in the July issue I wrote about "Starting, Serving, or Supporting a Nonprofit" in which I discussed mostly how to help a nonprofit from the outside. Having helped establish many nonprofits, and having served on the boards of over a dozen more*, I've seen a pattern of challenges emerge and they all start at the top. A nonprofit has very little hope of succeeding without solid leadership and an executive director can only do so much. In fact, in most structures, the ED serves at the pleasure of the board. Think of the ED like the engine, while the board supplies the fuel to make everything run. Unless the organization is a Tesla, in which case the ED is like the battery and the board the electricity…? The metaphor is falling apart before my eyes. Moving on.
Back to building a better board. While I could cite any number of challenges I've seen nonprofits face, most of them boil down to expertise and engagement. Because of alliteration.
Let's take expertise first. When passionate people come together to form or to serve an organization in pursuit of a charitable purpose, often the passion is the only thing they have in common. Last summer, I wrote about the importance of running a nonprofit like a business - "nonprofit is a tax status, not a business plan." A successful company can't have ten CFOs and zero COOs. The same is true for nonprofit organizations. If your board is comprised of only financial minds, your books may be in order but your marketing and messaging will likely suffer.
A few years ago, I was starting my third year on a board when the president asked why everyone had been invited to apply. When it was my turn to answer, I realized I didn't really know why I was asked but assumed it was for the free legal advice, as that was the reason I'd been invited to serve other organizations (and attend cocktail parties, incidentally). As it turned out, almost no one knew why they had been asked to serve, and it showed in the disjointed nature of our governance and the poor attendance at our meetings.
Engagement is as crucial as expertise to the success of a nonprofit. Not only do you need engaged volunteers as your boots on the ground, but your leadership must be engaged as well. Each organization defines engagement differently and I only half-joke about starting a new drinking game at board meetings - every time someone utters the phrase "time, talent, or treasure" everyone has to take a shot. In many meetings, I wouldn't have made it past roll call. As trite as the phrase is, it succinctly encompasses all the ways one can engage with a nonprofit. Volunteer your time, lend your expertise, or write a check.
When board members don't know why they're in the room, chances are the leadership doesn't know either. That's why a board matrix is an excellent tool for nonprofits of all ages and sizes to use, though it isn't foolproof. Basically, a board matrix is a visual representation of areas of expertise, experience, and industries that helps leadership compose more diverse leadership. Along one side you list characteristics like profession, industry experience, special skills, resources, community connections, age, gender, and racial/ethnic background. Did you just gasp? Relax. Sometimes boards need to see it on paper to realize it's overrepresented in one area, whether it be too many lawyers - heaven forbid - or too many old white guys.
The best first exercise to engage in as a nonprofit board is to figure out exactly what expertise you need. Sure, I'm biased, but don't think I'll meet too much resistance to declaring every nonprofit should have representation from marketing, finance, and law. You have to generate the money, track the money, and keep everything on the up and up. Some organizations require more specialized expertise. One of my nonprofits that serves the law enforcement community has an active officer on the board, so the civilian leadership doesn't stray too far from what's happening in real life. Another is an animal rescue that has benefited greatly from the expertise of a dog trainer board member who specializes in aggression cases. A hospital board should probably feature a physician or two. You get my drift. Once leadership has identified industries, look to your networks to figure out the right fit and start recruiting.
Make sure you're recruiting the right people. You wouldn't go to a podiatrist with a toothache, so make sure your experts are experts in the right areas. If you need a lawyer on your board, will a personal injury lawyer have the right background? ("They can probably write a check," she said bitterly.) If you need someone with financial acumen, a banker might be the right fit, but maybe not. You have to drill down into the individual's expertise and that's where recruitment efforts, detailed board applications, and careful interviews become so important.
While you're at it, don't ignore personalities. One of my first nonprofit board experiences was sitting in a large conference room chock full of very busy yet engaged volunteer board members who were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. All but one. Every board meeting was derailed by that person's overly positive yet nonsensical outbursts that contributed little to the conversation and only kept us from tackling important agenda items.
Personal motivations are important to consider as well, though they're a bit more challenging to uncover. Two of the worst types of board members, in my opinion, are those who serve only to pad their resumes and those who serve as seat fillers at the behest of their employers. Their motivations are not pure, and it readily shows in their lack of engagement.
So what if a few people aren't engaged? Every group project features a core subgroup that carries the rest. With strict nonprofit governance rules, however, low engagement means you'll struggle to meet quorum, which is required to vote and move agenda items forward.
Expertise and engagement. One begets the other. If you recruit a business attorney like me to the board, be clear about why you want me in the room. If I understand the role I play in the larger picture, chances are I'll be more engaged and wanting to help - with my time, talent, or treasure. <drinks>
* Yes, I realize that's too many but I only recently learned the word "no."