March 01, 2022

POV: Keeping Your Board on Board

I am not afraid to admit that as a nonprofit executive, some of the toughest parts of my job involve board management. Trust me, I am not throwing shade to my current or past board. I respect each and every individual who agrees to serve on UNA’s board and they are all excellent leaders. But I think it’s important to be real about the challenges involved with being an organization’s chief executive and ‘managing up’ with a board of directors.  

As paid staff, the chief executive is supposed to provide the board with everything they need to perform their role effectively so they can guide the strategic vision of the organization. Because the Board of Directors is made up of all volunteers, they naturally rely on the chief executive for many things: reminders, documents, historical knowledge, perspective, etc.  

From experience I can affirm that this complex relationship between a Board of Directors and the chief executive tends to illicit frustration from all angles. As a volunteer board member, I sometimes felt like I didn’t get called on enough for my expertise or that I was being asked to do things outside my scope. As a chief executive sometimes I feel like I am doing all the heavy lifting with minimal reciprocal involvement from the board.  

It’s impossible to have one solution for this complex issue because it involves so many people. Let’s just use UNA as an example. We have 17 board members and 1 paid executive (me). We really do our best as an organization to make sure all board members have what they need in advance of any meeting and that our time making decisions is well utilized. But we are still 18 people with individual needs and individual circumstances impacting how we show up. 

Pulling on all of my years in Nonprofit Land I’d like to provide some of my favorite board engagement practices that really make a difference. In no particular order: 

  • Recruit Board Members based on their alignment and interest in the mission. Resist the urge to fall prey to, “Well they’re a warm body and we need people”. Mission alignment is key! 
  • Be up front about the commitment required for board service. From the beginning of the recruitment process, throughout a board member’s service, and up to the end of their service, board members should be involved in conversations about how much time activities and meetings will take.  
  • Give board members the ability to leave with grace if it is no longer a good fit for them to serve on the board. People’s lives shift and change all the time. What was a good idea last year may not be a good idea this year.  
  • If you are currently on a board and need to step away, please be transparent and let the board chair and chief executive know immediately. This reduces everyone’s stress.  
  • Open and honest communication is critical. It’s important to discuss what is working and what is not. Everyone, including the chief executive, should feel that they can communicate and raise issues without fear of retaliation. 
  • Use skills and attributes metrics to track who is on your board. Knowing who is represented often helps identify any glaring gaps.   
  • Look under every bed, behind every door, and to the corners of the earth for board members. Don’t be afraid to bring someone on that you have never met. UNA has several board members who watched us from afar and presented themselves as board candidates when we publically called for nominations. Some of these folks can be your best allies and spokespeople for your organization. 

Board recruitment is challenging. Finding just the right person can be a rough gig for anyone trying to fill board slots. All of us in Nonprofit Land are looking for dedicated folks to help us guide our organizations. UNA does have some resources to help with Board Governance items, because after all you are not in this alone: 

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