Don’t take board relationships for granted

June 21, 2012

Filed under: Board Development — jonathanpoisner @ 9:24 am

It’s easy for Executive Directors to take their board for granted when it comes to their time.

You already get their input at board meetings and through formal processes.

They should be 100% behind the organization already — that’s their role after all.

The Executive Director should be able to focus on building relationships with other people.

Yet, board members are people.  And people relate to other people.

The reality is that too many Executive Directors I talk to don’t recognize the importance of building and maintaining strong personal relationships with individual board members.

Stronger relationships will leave board members more motivated to help you (e.g. raise money), more willing to engage in deeper level strategic conversations, and more likely to see themselves as part of a team.

How do you generate stronger relationships in practice?

Separate from board meetings, you should get to know your board members.   As a general rule of thumb, I recommend meeting with every single board member every 12-18 months over coffee or a meal.

Put this in your work plan.  Work it just as you would a list of major donors.

There should be no agenda at these meetings.  Your top goal should be to get to know them and to have them get to know you.  Of course, naturally in the conversation you will get the chance to talk about how things are going organizationally.  I found these informal check-ins were often when the most useful strategic ideas emerged.

If you get to the point where you see board members truly as friends, don’t hesitate to invite them to other social gatherings you host, or to attend theirs if invited.

Of course, board relationships also run board member to board member.  It’s a good idea if you offer board members an annual opportunity to do something together socially.  This could be an organizational holiday party for board and staff, a summer barbeque, or a dozen other options.

Of course, for boards that are more far-flung (e.g. national or even spread out within a single state or region), doing social activities is more challenging.  It probably can only realistically take place in the evening before or after an in-person board meeting.

But under any scenario — Executive Directors should consciously think about how to build better personal relationships with board members and ways for board members to get to know each other.

Effective new board member orientation meetings

May 10, 2012

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 9:33 am

As I work with more clients, I’m struck by the number who acknowledge that they don’t do a good job — or any job for that matter — orienting new board members.

They acknowledge it’s a mistake, but seldom does that change.  For many of them, the task seems daunting.

Yet, it shouldn’t.  A board member orientation isn’t rocket science.

Here’s my quickie guide.

When a new person joins your board, you should give them a packet of information about the organization and its current board.   A week or two later, you should then meet with them to develop a plan for their activities over their first year.

The New Board Member Information Packet should include:

  • An organizational fact sheet.
  • A list of board members with contact information.
  • A copy of the bylaws.
  • A copy of the current budget and most recent financial statements.
  • A copy of the strategic plan — if you don’t have one, that’s the subject of another blog posting.
  • A few examples of recent communication materials (e.g. last few issues of your newsletter, an annual report, etc.).
  • Upcoming board meeting dates

Then, a couple weeks later, hold the orientation meeting.  Don’t put it off if you want to create a culture from the start that your board involves active engagement.

Ideally, the orientation meeting includes both the Executive  Director and a board chair or board development committee chair.  But the Executive Director should do this alone if their board leadership isn’t able or ready to participate.

If you have two board members start at the same time, it’s okay to orient them at the same time.

Then, for the board orientation meeting, you should:

  • Get to know them more as an individual.  The quality of personal relationships matters — take the opportunity to build them during one-on-one or two-on-one meetings.
  • See what questions they have, particularly related to the strategic plan.  It’s as important for them to understand the why of the strategy as the specifics of your program.
  • Walk them through the budget and financial statements — make sure they understand your current financial situation and how you report on your finances.
  • Develop objectives for their participation in their first year.  These objectives should include: a decision on which committee(s) to join and their fundraising goal for the year.  If they want to hold off on picking a committee for a couple of meetings, that’s okay — but then put it on your calendar to circle back to them when the time is appropriate.

Some of this may have already been covered, of course, in a board recruitment meeting.  But don’t hesitate to repeat yourself a bit.  My wife often has to repeat herself several times before I remember something.   Don’t assume new board members will remember everything you’ve told them — particularly if it’s one fact that came up at a board recruitment meeting.

Good telephone board meetings

April 6, 2012

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 10:30 am

I previously wrote about how not to run a board meeting.

That post presumed it was an in-person meeting.

What about telephone meetings?

Occasionally, boards must meet by phone either because of geographic challenges or urgency.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Do have a very clear agenda with decision points.  A phone meeting should ideally be no more than one hour and shouldn’t be overpacked with agenda items.  Even better if you can keep the meeting agenda to 30-45 minutes.
  • Do a reality check before the meeting with board members to identify if any of the issues are likely to be contentious.  Unless absolutely necessary, contentious issues should be moved to a meeting that will be in-person instead of via phone.  And if you do have a contentious issue, consider making that the sole agenda item so it doesn’t have to be rushed.
  • Do have a good conference phone system, so that people can hear and avoid background noise.
  • Do share any supporting material before hand
  • Do have a strong facilitator who keeps the agenda on time, but also goes out of the way to make sure that people participate.  Silence should not be taken as assent,  but rather assent/opinions should be more affirmatively sought out by a facilitator, even if that means randomly calling on participants to let us know what they think if a question is asked and silence ensues.
  • Another idea for getting people to participate is to develop assignments in setting up the agenda so it’s not only the chair/staff who’re presenting items or framing them for discussion.
  • Do be clear about any action items/assignments coming out of the meeting.
  • Unless the group knows each other very well, encourage those talking to say their name the first several times they speak during the call so that people will come to know their voice.
  • If several people are gathered in one room and then a handful are on the phone, assign somebody the role of speaking up for the sentiment in the room (e.g. making comments like, “everyone here in the room is nodding their head yes.”).

How Not to Run a Board Meeting

March 15, 2012

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 10:48 am

I recently observed two of my pet peeves about board meetings in the same meeting.

1. Orally report on past activities, when there was plenty of time to put the report in writing.

2. Framing broad general subjects, rather than specific decisions.

What’s wrong with both.

Let’s start with orally reporting what you could put in writing ahead of time.  This is just a poor use of time.  Your board’s time is one of your most precious resources.  And your board’s time in the same place is even more precious.

The vast majority of people can absorb information quicker reading.  Listening to one person share orally not only wastes time of those who could absorb the information quicker by reading, but it squanders the time your board has to do its most important job: govern.  Governing takes conversation.

What about selecting topics, instead of questions, for board deliberation?  This is perhaps an even bigger time sink.  Adding topics to a board meeting just because it’s always on the agenda is not a reason to schedule an item for the agenda.  And even if it is, you need to give your board some decision or options around which to frame the conversation, or it will be meander.

The conversation I recently witnessed went off in five different directions not just because the board chair didn’t intervene to keep it on a single topic, but because the board chair had no guidance for how to do so since the agenda item was set up as a topic, instead of a decision.

How often should your board meet?

August 4, 2011

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 4:24 pm

I’ve had this question come up in conversation a few times in the last month.

There is, of course, no pat answer.

Here are some factors that would lead me to meet quite frequently (eg. monthly):

  • If the board has real fears about fiscal health and needs to either take charge of it or hold an Executive Director accountable.
  • If the organization lacks staff and the board is therefore responsible for fundraising and program
  • If the organizational lay of the land is in a very rapid state of change

Here are some factors that would lead me to meet either 4 or 6 times per year instead:

  • If there are functioning committees and you want to give committees more time between meetings to do their work.
  • If monthly meetings take up so much time that the board doesn’t feel it has time to meet its fundraising obligations.
  • If less frequent (but longer) board meetings will allow the Executive Director to spend less time doing basic board meeting prep that comes at the expense of fundraising/program.

Of course, if you go to longer board meetings, it does place a higher burden on the Executive Director to come up with other means between board meetings to maintain communications with the board.  I’ve written about the subject of ED-Board communications previously.

In my experience, as organizations mature they should move from more frequent shorter meetings to less frequent longer meetings.   For most organizations, somewhere between 10-16 hours of meetings per year should be sufficient, if there are functioning committees capable of doing the work between meetings.  This is on top of any board retreat that’s about long-range planning, which is worthy of its own blog post.

The Executive Director v. the Board

July 6, 2011

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 3:55 pm

I’m often asked by Executive Directors to give advice as to the division of responsibilities between the staff and board.

Here’s my two cents.

The traditional view is the following:

The board:

  • Financial Due Diligence
  • Help with Fundraising
  • Strategic Direction
  • Hire/Fire/Evaluate the Executive Director
  • Board Recruitment
  • Facilitate its own meetings

The Executive Director:

  • Manage day to day finances
  • Lead Fundraising
  • Create a vision for the board’s use in setting strategic direction
  • Hire/Fire/Evaluate other staff and contractors
  • Develop programs and implement them (either directly or via other staff/contractors)

In the real world, I’ve rarely found the traditional scenario played out.  Almost always, the Executive Director must set the conditions necessary for the board to fulfill its role.

This includes:

  • Setting up systems that allow the board to exercise its financial due diligence, providing them financial statements on a monthly basis in an understandable format with appropriate analysis of how things are going.
  • Providing a clear structure for the board’s fundraising, through a combination of training, materials, ideas, and systems to ensure board members are operating efficiently and not duplicating each others’ efforts.
  • Providing ongoing information about the lay of the land and strategic options so that board decisions regarding the strategic direction of the organization aren’t set in a vacuum.  Almost always in my experience, boards can best provide strategic guidance when provided reasonable alternatives from which to choose rather than having open-ended dialogues.
  • Initiating their own evaluation, including a self-evaluations, and including establishment of personal goals that the board can use for its evaluation of the Executive Director.
  • Staffing the board recruitment process and participating in it or even leading it if necessary to ensure the board is at full strength over time.
  • Providing draft agendas for board chairs and leading the board meetings, even as the chair plays the official facilitator role.  This includes putting together good board packets and getting them out on a timely basis.

It sounds exhausting.  And it is.

But when it clicks — when the ED does one role and then the board plays its role — an organization can truly thrive.   When thinking about my long tenure as an ED, those moments when everything clicked were priceless.

Of course, the above begs the question of how things are different when an organization is small, just getting started, and not yet thriving. Almost always, this means the board must take on more responsibility in some areas and less in others.  I’ll write more about that in a separate blog post soon.

Asking your board for money

May 21, 2011

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 5:10 pm

I recently heard Nick Fellers of For Impact present.

Great speaker if you ever have the opportunity.

One of the things he suggested that rang true for me is the following:

As Executive Director, you should do a 1 on 1 donor meeting with all board members (with or without your board chair joining you) at least once per year.

Treat them like the major donors that they are.

You’re doing this partly to excite them.

You’re doing this partly to train them on effective fundraising by modeling best practices.

And you’re doing this to ask the to take on more responsibility.

In this day and age, as board members lead complicated lives with competing priorities, you can’t expect a board member who perhaps thinks about your cause an hour a week to always self-motivate.

So go ask them!

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