Boards & Board Members—Not the Same!

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Ask any bunch of executive directors what they want from their boards, and most will say, “Be more engaged.”


Many times, they mean that they would like to have their individual board members become more active.


That’s because we’ve confused the role of the board versus the role of the individuals who volunteer to serve on the board.


Let’s compare and contrast the board and its members.


The board is a governing body.

The board is a body that is the legal and ultimate authority for the non-profit corporation.  It is the governing body.


The members who serve on the board may also do volunteer work for the organization in functions in addition to governance. As such, they are not acting as governors, but as at-large volunteers.


The traditional governance functions of boards are:

  1. Ensure that the organization provides value to society by having a relevant mission and a targeted plan to pursue the mission.
  2. Ensure adequate resources to execute the plan.
  3. Ensure fiduciary responsibility.
  4. Evaluate progress toward the plan and the mission.
  5. Safeguard the organization’s reputation.
  6. Hire, support, supervise and replace the executive director.
  7. Manage the affairs of and perpetuate the board.


These are functions that the board must engage in to fulfill its legal responsibilities.  They are not optional.


In this slate of functions, most executive directors would prefer that the board successfully execute Item 7.  More specifically, they wish the board would run its own committees without undue staff initiative and recruit new board members with the means and interest to help the organization.


Most executive directors also wish that the board would help with fundraising.  But fundraising isn’t a governance function.  It’s not in the Magic 7 list above.  You could read fundraising in Item 2, but it’s not there.  “Ensure adequate resources to execute the plan” means that the plan is scoped appropriately to the resources of the organization. It has more to do with a realistic and balanced and budget than filling in the sources of funds side of the budget.  Fundraising is not in Item 3, either.  “Overseeing the appropriate uses of funds” has to do with donor policies, mission-focused uses of funds, and ensuring that fraud, waste and abuse are absent and transparently so.


Board Members as Volunteers, not Governors.

Fundraising isn’t a board function.  It may be a board-member function.  So let’s get to the list of functions that individual board members may engage in—or may not.


  1. Giving a charitable gift to the organization.
  2. Helping to raise funds: identifying prospective donors with the means and interest to give, building relationships with prospective donors, soliciting gifts and thanking donors for their gifts.
  3. Serving as ambassadors in the community.  This usually means showing up at key events and saying good things about the organization to their friends. It also sometimes means the nebulous “networking,” which is an unfocused wish that board members would continually search for ways to bring resources to the organization from their circle of contacts.
  4. Providing advice.  Often the executive director would like to have a sounding board or kitchen cabinet of experienced, knowledgeable people to ask for advice, solicit reactions to ideas and generally feel not so alone with important decisions.  Sometimes the executive director finds these advisors on the board, sometimes in an advisory committee or an informal group of trusted allies.
  5. Serving as program volunteers.  Here the board members are acting in the same role as non-board member volunteers, in direct pursuit of mission-critical activities.  At these times, the board member is under direction from a staff member, not a committee chair or board president.  The fact that this person is also on the board is relatively immaterial—he is doing volunteer work, not governance work.


Help Board Members Succeed.

Once the distinction is clear between the board member as part of a governing body and the board member as an at-large volunteer, helping her succeed in her respective roles becomes less confusing.


First, ask the right board member for the right kind of help, and second, ask her in a way that she can be successful in responding.


Ask board members for what they can give.

Many board members got recruited because they had a specific set of skills, abilities or other attributes to bring to the board.  If that’s the case, she needs to know why the organization is pursuing her.  Having to guess, or worse, not being able to apply those attributes (say, due to conflict of interest) leaves those board members adrift.  If the board member knows up front why the organization wants her, she has a better chance of actually doing those functions.


If the board member has great contacts and a passion to engage them, great.  If another has deep knowledge of complex land transactions and you need help figuring out all the moving parts, great again.  If a third has experience designing ecological monitoring programs, that’s great, too.


But you can’t ask a board member to do a task that she can’t do—and expect to have it work out.  You can go ahead and ask the ecological monitoring wizard for help with major foundations with which she has no connections or experience if you want to.  Just don’t.


Social marketing techniques help figure out what to ask of whom.  You should know the assets of each board member.  You can then figure out two things:  what is the benefit to that board member of doing what you ask, and what are the obstacles.  And not as you perceive the benefits and obstacles, but as the board member does.  So crawl into her skin, analyze the benefits and obstacles through her eyes, then do your best to truly amplify the benefits and lower the obstacles.  You can’t just spin it—the benefits and obstacles spread has to be true.  If the benefits really are quite attractive and the obstacles low, the board member perceives the task as a no-brainer, and you get your positive response.


Ask in a way to get a positive response.

To get a positive response to a request for action from a volunteer, ask her:

  1. To do a specific task…
  2. That she has the means and interest to do…
  3. By a time certain.


Think of an emergency situation.  You say to the assembled crowd, “Somebody call 9-1-1.”  Not a single person in the crowd is named “Somebody.”  So all those somebodies just stand around, until, after a while, somebody decides that he will be Somebody and make the call.  Time wasted in emergencies is dangerous.


Now, try it again.  Catch a by-stander by the elbow and say, look him in the eye and say, “Call 9-1-1.  Now.” Call made.


Savvy the difference?


Above all, remember, board members join boards because they want to succeed, and to see the organization succeed.  They want to bring their special talents to make good things happen.  Even the ones who got roped into joining by a friend want to use what they have to do good.


You can help them.  Ask for what they can give.  Ask for a specific think that they can do, by a time certain, and make sure that their body language as well as their words say yes.


“The persuasion of a friend is a strong thing.”  Homer, The Iliad

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