Boards of Directors

Three Ways To Be a Great Nonprofit Board Chair – Help Me Help You

Having sat on a number of boards for nonprofits, I encountered different types of board chairs.  I’ve experienced chairs from one end of the spectrum to another.  There are those board chairs who are a bit detached and I hear from rarely (twice a year).  I also have board chairs who I receive multiple daily emails from.  Being an effective board chair is a lot like being an effective manager.  Leading a board is no different, except it is a lot harder because board chairs do not pay their members.

What that means for board chairs is that the management skills required are even more complicated.  However, the basic principles of management can easily be applied.  I teach a college-level Management Principles course a few times a year and we always talk about the spectrum of authority when it comes to managers.  In their text “Understanding Business, ” the authors place management styles on a continuum.

Nickels, McHugh, and McHugh (2013)

Nickels, McHugh, and McHugh (2013)

These different management styles in the for-profit world work well in certain situations.  However, in a non-profit setting dealing with volunteers, board chairs need to help make their board members feel as though their members are part of the process.  Board chairs really need to operate in the “Participative, Democratic” area to be sure that board members feel engaged.  

Borrowing from for-profit management principles, there are three basic things a board chair can do to be a more effective leader.

  1. Delivering Consistent Communication (Both One-On-One and Group)
  2. Having Effective Agendas
  3. Be Sure to Uncover the Skills (AND INTERESTS!) of Your Members

 1. Consistent Communication

Communication is by far, the most important component of success for any group working toward a goal.  On the most effective boards I’ve been a part of, there was a consistent and regular flow of communication.  For example, on one board I served, I knew that every month I would receive a fundraising report from the fundraising director.  I also knew that I would receive a personal check-in and thank you email from the chair every month.  I have to admit that most board chairs do not send personal check-in or thank you emails to their members.  This alone, boggles my mind.  If you were managing a team of employees, you certainly would carve out time to say thank you to each and every one of the employees when they are doing a great job.

Just this one step will change the entire dynamic of your board.  It is actually pretty easy to do. Every month, set a reminder for each board member to send them a personal email detailing all of the things they have done to contribute to the cause.  Then, just say thank you.  Don’t ask for anything else.  Just say “thanks.”  I donate every month to the Farm Sanctuary, based in New York, and I continue to do so because every month, I receive a quick thank you.  Also, put personal notes in – ask about their family or their job.  Show that you understand them and that you pay attention to their lives.  Simply taking 5 minutes every month to let a board member know  you are thinking about them on an individual level will do wonders for their motivation to help the organization.

The key is setting up what “consistent” means to each board member.  This may depend on the current activities of the nonprofit or board.  At certain times of the year, a weekly email is appropriate.  At others, a monthly email or phone call may be appropriate.  They key is managing the expectation for communication.  Nothing bothers humans more than feeling ignored or unimportant.  We are social creatures by nature and we want to feel included.  Set up the expectation for communication as soon as a board member joins.  Then be sure to communicate according to that expectation.

 2. Having Effective Agendas

Meetings…I cannot tell you how many board members I speak to that complain about meetings.  The primary reason for this is the board members never know two things: 1. the point of the meeting (other than ticking off a box) and 2. the expected outcome of the meeting.  Most of us have attended ineffective board meetings.  In my experience, here is what happens:

1. Meeting attendees get together for the first 10 minutes of the meeting to network and catchup

2. Meeting attendees are then also presented with an agenda – often the first time we have seen it

3. Meeting attendees then want to contribute to the meeting by proposing ideas off the cuff about whatever topic is listed on the agenda

4. The meeting gets derailed and goes off into several other topics and nothing gets accomplished

While ownership is important in boards, structure is as well.  The best board member I ever had work for me said it like this: “Just tell me exactly what you want from me and when you need it.  I will deliver.”  Meetings should be treated the same way.  Communicate clearly to your board before the meeting with a clear cut agenda.  Items should have time limits and the outcomes for the discussion should be clearly indicated.  An example might be: 6:15PM – 6:30PM “Board decision for $5K spending on marketing in X market.”  The decision will need to be made in 15 minutes.  The board will appreciate this respect of time and structure.

 3. Be Sure to Uncover the Skills (AND INTERESTS!) of Your Members

I know that I have personally encountered this frustration being on boards.  My skills (and interest!) are in social media, blogs, fundraising strategy, and networking.  That is what I can bring to the table.  I’ve served on boards where they have asked me to do things that were a bit off the mark from what I wish to do.  I developed an entire annual giving campaign for a nonprofit and the board came back and said “We’d really like you to be an unpaid volunteer coordinator instead.”  Really?  And folks, theses were millionaires in business that asked me this question.  After some investigation, I found out one of the board members talked to a former employer of mine and mentioned how good I was with volunteers.  However, I did not WANT to work with volunteers.  I wanted to work with donors and launch this annual giving campaign I had worked on for months (and was initially encouraged by the board to do so). I felt ignored, belittled, and most importantly, I felt that I had wasted my time. Needless to say, I did not join that board.

As a board chair, it is your duty to find out the background of your members and prospective members.  It is even MORE important to find out what INTERESTS them.  To illustrate another personal example, I was a professional event planner for about 8 years and it is something I do quite well.  However, I have NO interest in planning events ever again, well, ok – maybe when I’m retired.  If any individual approaches me and asks me to plan a fundraising event, no matter how much I care about the cause, right now at this point in my life I will say no.

Find out what your board members WANT to do and then let them do it.  Give them the resources you can, the moral support they need, and let them find out how much they can do for your organization.  To sum this up:

1. Let them know you care about THEM

2. Respect them by giving them structure with the time you require from them

3. Find out what they WANT to do for you and help them do it for you

In the words of Jerry Maguire: “Help me help you.”  – That’s what you need to say to your board.



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