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Three secrets and several tips for kickstarting your board

Your board is made up of capable, trusted volunteers who have committed their talents to moving the mission forward. Over time, though, boards can lose the drive and focus that pushes them to live up to their potential—keeping your nonprofit from getting the full benefit of their talents.

Before you tackle motivation, of course, you’ll need a complete strategic plan that makes it clear where the organization is headed and what you need to get there—a plan that ties the impact in the community to every board role and responsibility. The strategic plan will also tell you what skills, behaviors, and resources are required from your board: “Once you understand what the organization must accomplish, you can see what kinds of board support it needs,” said GCN Consulting VP Tim Johnson. “Aligning the board with your strategic needs is a matter of working with existing board members, and recruiting new members, to fill in the gaps between where you are and where you want to be.”

So how do you motivate board members to jump in with both feet, using all their unique strengths? It helps to use a few secrets put together by GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group, which they share in our board boot camps and in facilitated board retreats throughout the year, and at Nonprofit University’s Board Leadership Clinic (coming up on Oct. 23).

Starting with a list of leadership motivation secrets compiled by EVP Chris Allers, we asked our on-hand experts to add their thoughts. Though each GCN consultant had their favorite, they all agreed that each of these three secrets, and the tips that follow them, play a big part in cultivating a fully activated board.

Be clear about expectations: yours and theirs.

A mutually-understood set of expectations comes from job descriptions, work plans, committee descriptions, and board orientations that are clear and specific to your organization. The way to achieve that clarity and specificity, said Senior Consultant Mary Bear Hughes, is by “making sure every document, plan, and definition—everything—is driven by the strategic plan.”

When it’s clear to you why this person has agreed to volunteer their time on your board, you can easily define their contributions and expectations.

“Don’t just identify their expected contributions: Orient them to fit on this particular board,” said GCN Senior Consultant Jeanne Drake Ward. At the same time, she added, you should orient yourself to this particular member, by assessing why they’ve joined the board. “When it’s clear to you why this person has agreed to volunteer their time on your board, you can easily define their contributions and expectations.”

On both sides, expectations should be realistic: Don’t expect each board member to act on every board responsibility. Document the way responsibilities should be fulfilled in an individual “board commitment,” redrawn annually. These should cover attendance at fundraisers and events, committee participation and the part they’ll play, individual gifts, and, emphasized Hughes, an individual board succession plan.

With expectations on paper, you’ll be able to monitor individual outcomes and, just as importantly, establish an annual board self-evaluation, where members evaluate their own effectiveness and the organization’s. (See some key questions from GCN’s self-assessment questionnaire.)

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

“It all needs to be discussed,” said Ward. “Strategy, accountability, expectations, feedback from both sides, tough topics like funding and financials: everything.”

Before you do anything else, determine what’s missing from your board communications, and how you can fill in the gaps. That includes the documents mentioned above (plans, expectations, assessments) as well as the materials that keep members informed about the organization and upcoming meetings. Do you send out agendas and other materials in advance of board meetings? If so, are you sure they’re being received and read?

“One client keeps a board intranet, and it makes a huge difference in how frequently board members refer to documents in meetings,” said Hughes. If that sounds complicated, it isn’t: You can easily set up a file-sharing system for free through Dropbox or Google Drive. Another strategy Hughes recommends for keeping boards up-to-date: a weekly “Headlines” email, consolidating all organizational news and announcements.

It’s always smart to be honest about funding needs.

With everyone on the same page, you can discuss the “tough topics.” The key to talking about finances and other needs, said Allers, is to focus on what’s possible, rather than the consequences of failure. “It’s always smart to be honest about funding needs,” said Allers. “While it might cause anxiety in yourself and others, you can make a big difference by being clear and positive, by talking specifically about what you are doing to fill in the gap and what, specifically, the board can do.” It’s also important to be clear about what absolutely has to happen, in terms of strategic decisions that must be made, new policies to execute, priorities that must be followed, and essential governance duties (like fiscal accountability and oversight) that must be fulfilled.

Equip board members to shine.

Part of assessing a member’s motivation for joining the board is identifying what he or she does best. That way, when deciding on their responsibilities, you can give them the best opportunities to thrive.

It may take more time to discover and, as Allers points out, “you don’t want to micromanage people,” but learning about members’ personal qualities—like enthusiasm, empathy, skepticism, positivity—as well as their skills allows you to deploy the best person for any given situation. For example, “Tap your vigilant board members to keep on the lookout for opportunities. Make sure strategic members get to weigh in on big decisions.”

You’ve also got to be responsive to questions and needs. At least once a year (ideally more), find out how board membersare feeling, particularly those who have served several years already. The most important question to ask, said Allers, is this: “What do you need from us in order to accomplish the things you want for this organization?”

And if the answer is a new skillset, or a refresher in some topic they feel they’ve fallen behind in? Train, train, train. “Board members, even seasoned ones, do not necessarily know how to build the skillsets to make them confident in their role,” said Allers. “That’s another reason to keep asking how they feel, and where they’re looking for support,” as well as a reason to be proactive in seeking training for them.

Training needs to be an expression of demand: more what people say they need, than what you think they need.

Of course, training doesn’t work on people who don’t want to be trained: “If the board itself doesn’t find training valuable, it will be an uphill battle,” said Allers. “Training needs to be an expression of demand: more what people say they need, than what you think they need.”

That same goes for all of the secrets: Before anything can happen—established expectations, rich communication, individual member empowerment—the value of those things must be apparent to each board member. No amount of tips, tricks, or secrets will convince someone to undertake a commitment or policy they don’t see the point in.

That’s why it’s essential to know your organization first, and to get to know your board members as quickly, and completely, as possible. (For more on getting to know your board, see Who’s On Board? from NOW issue no. 7.) To learn more about how GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group can help build high-performing boards, visit gcn.org/consulting or contact them at [email protected].

Contributors include GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group members Chris Allers, executive vice president and senior consultant; Tim Johnson, vice president and senior consultant; and Mary Bear Hughes and Jeanne Drake Ward, senior consultants. Marc Schultz is managing editor of NOW.

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