Sunday, October 31, 2010

Boards 'on fire'

"Board members must be on fire for the organization that they serve..."

That's how one of the students in my "Introduction to the Nonprofit Sector" class summarized last week's too-short unit on boards. Amidst the collective shock of discovering the "10 responsibilities" of nonprofit governance (not unlike many boards I've encountered), this student and several classmates also recognized the importance of board members connecting to more than the bottom line. (For an online version of the video the class was discussing, including my own additions to the Big 10, click here.)

This particular student's "on fire" description summed up beautifully the need for passion for something bigger than oneself: a connection to, and enthusiasm for, the mission and vision of the organization one signs on to govern. Yes, there are other reasons that drive people to board service. Some of us do it to get involved in the community. Some of us say yes because a good friend twisted our arm. A few do it for the line on the resume or the chance to gain some leadership experience. But if we're not excited about the mission we are serving - if we are not 'on fire' for the work of the organization and our role in leading it - it will be a long, tedious, probably ineffective term of service.

How do we stoke the fire of our board? How do we ignite our own passion for governance on the boards where we serve? How do we sustain the flame? I invite you to share your own insights and experiences via comment to this post. In the meantime, I'd like to share a few thoughts of my own.

Lighting and Sustaining the Board Fire
  • Recruit from within. There are many reasons to look to volunteers who serve elsewhere in your organization when the time comes to recruit new board members. The biggest? They're already committed to your mission (hopefully even passionate about it!) and knowledgeable about the ways in which you work to achieve it.
  • Have a compelling mission story - with clarity about the board's leadership role - and tell it often as you are prospecting for new members. Give them a clear, concise, inspiring picture of the difference you are making, and how they will be part of that journey in board service.
  • Infuse your new member orientation process with vivid illustrations of the agency at work, of the board's leadership, of personal accountability for mission success. Tell stories, lots of stories, that bring your mission to life and make it real for new board members. (Note the "process" reference - orientation is more than a one-time event.)
  • Create opportunities to bring members closer to the mission within each board meeting. Keep those stories coming, sharing (anonymous) client success stories, staff accounts of challenges overcome, healthy donor contacts - whatever helps give life to the mission and progress toward fulfilling it.
  • Identify and share multiple venues and resources for learning more about not only the organization but the issues(s) that you address on a daily basis. Encourage board members to develop their own knowledge base, rather than relying on someone spoon feeding them what they 'need to know.' Identify websites, publications, listservs, and other places to deepen their understanding of the challenges, models, etc., that can help them make more informed, mission-focused decisions.
  • Hold board members accountable for their own learning, and for the learning of their peers, by asking them to explore a mission-critical topic and share what they learn via a brief "board learning moment" at a meeting. Our own learning deepens when we share with others.
  • Celebrate the big and small moments of board life, connecting specific ways in which their individual and collective actions moved the organization closer to to the mission. This is particularly important for boards, as the work of governance may feel removed from the 'real work' that staff and other volunteers are accomplishing. Helping them to identify the unique contributions that their leadership makes (which, of course, assumes you're facilitating focus on their ultimate responsibilities) builds satisfaction and commitment.
  • Build in regular time for reflection and assessment: how are we/am I contributing to leading this organization toward our mission? This may feel harder to do for some board members (for example, in a setting where some board members share expertise in the mission area and some don't). Be specific in regularly sharing exactly what their leadership adds to the group's capacity to govern. Some may honestly have trouble seeing it.
  • Encourage board members to attend all of the organization's events. Board members are ambassadors for the organization - whether or not they realize it - and these settings are among the best and most energizing venues for assuming that role. Experiencing and sharing enthusiasm for the cause, whatever it may be, goes a long way toward keeping the fire lit for many of us.
I offer those thoughts in the spirit of sparking a conversation. I'm interested in hearing your reactions and your own recommendations - particularly those that encourage boards toward even deeper levels of commitment and passion for the work. I'll admit that some items on my list feel a little basic. But I also know that 'basic' is a step, or 10, above where many boards dwell when it comes to building and stoking the fire of passionate commitment in their members.


GayleGifford said...

What a thoughtful and totally right on post. I love your student's description that board members need to be "on fire." All deep engagement starts from real passion for the mission. Your steps to igniting that passion are the ones I preach. Thank you for capturing them so well.

Susan Howlett said...

I agree with your post about board members needing to be on fire about the mission. I actually wrote a book last year called Boards on Fire! Inspiring Leaders to Raise Money Joyfully. It lays out ten barriers that organizations unwittingly put in the way of board members getting excited about their role, and how to eliminate those barriers. Check it out sometime!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Thanks for the referral, Susan!