Developing Meaningful Relationships Within Nonprofit Boards
By: Eugene Fram
For several decades, I have suggested that nonprofit Board Chairs and CEOs have a responsibility to be sure that each board member perceives his/h continuing relationship as being meaningful. Following are some organizational guidelines that can assist Board Chairs and CEOs in this effort.*
- Developing or hiring strong executive leadership: Obviously when hiring externally it is necessary to engage a person with a managerial background. But many nonprofit CEOs can be appointed after years of being an individual contributor or leading a small department. These experiences condition them to do too much themselves, rather than to assume a strong management posture. This involves focusing more on strategy, on talent development, interacting more with the board/community and creating a long-term vision.
A strong CEO, if appointed internally, should understand the role changes that take place once appointed. He/s must delegate activities that was once performed was once performed within a comfort zone and seek new challenges. Examples: The new CEO needs to be enthusiastic about becoming a fundraiser. She/h must become well acquainted with peer CEOs regionally and nationally to stay abreast of the state-of-art in both management and mission areas. He/s needs to become acquainted with cohorts in the business and public management communities. Over time, those involved with the nonprofit internally and externally must perceive the organization is lead by a capable executive.
- Creating impact: In the 21st century, funders, board members and other nonprofit leaders are attracted to organizations that create impacts as opposed to outcomes. A nonprofit can have great program outcomes with little long-term impacts on clients. Impact is often hard to measure, but it can be done, only if started with imperfect measures that are improved over time. ** For example, one local human services organization, with which I am acquainted, operates groups of apartments offering social services that allow elderly clients to live independently for years on their own, rather than in an assisted living facility. The impact in this instance is well-defined and an impetus to attracting board members and donors that find the impact meaningful.
- Building relationships externally and internally: Board candidates who have broad contact networks are sought by search committees to enhance community or industry relationships or to strengthen the organization’s fund development efforts. Little effort is directed to fostering closer relationships among current board members who often don’t get to know each other personally because of crowded board and committee agendas. Example: I consulted with one board where some board members complained that they might not recognize their board peers when they meet them in outside social situations.
To solve the problem, both the Board Chair & CEO must acknowledge that it exists—in the above example; it took an extensive personal interview board survey to highlight the problem. Then creative tactics like the following can be employed.
- One CEO has a weekly one-hour conference call with the board chair to discuss current issues. Other board members are invited to join the calls if they wish. This is an excellent way for new board members to quickly become attuned to the nonprofit.
- Another CEO, each Sunday, sends a one-page e-mail summary of major events to board members. He reports that his high school English teacher would never approve of his grammar or format, but he knows e-mails are reviewed. They are reflected in the level of discussions at meetings
- Low-key self-funded social events for board members and significant others can help board members to become better acquainted and work together.
- Another classical approach is to allow 10 minutes each meeting to allow board members to briefly report changes in their personal or professional lives.
- Assuming an organization is successful in developing a cohesive board, what can be done to retain these efforts once they have termed-out? The answer is to ask them to join the organization’s “Alumni Association.” The process can be found here: (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ltl.20305)
- Organizational stability: Unstable nonprofits have common telltale signs—rapid employees or management turnover, excessive bank borrowing, reserve depletion, late report filings, etc. It’s difficult to provide meaningful board experiences under these conditions. However it is not unusual to find board members who will accept responsibility when the nonprofit is unstable, if they are dedicated to its mission. Some may even “enjoy” the turnaround challenge.
While no nonprofit will be perfect, those with the best opportunity to provide meaningful board experiences will have a well formulated strategic plan that allows it to be stable
operationally and financially.