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  Five Guaranteed Ideas for Managing Your Apathetic Board Potpourri

Canadian FundRaiserSince we are passionate about our cause, we go out and recruit skilled people we think share that passion. Together, they could accomplish miracles for our community. But far too often, they are much less than the sum of their parts. Even when they show up, the discussions are poor and everyone is bored.

They can be startled into action by liability issues or a crisis, but they fall back into lethargy once they establish the audit committee, carry out a due diligence check list or hire a new ED.

Meanwhile, the need they are serving in the community grows, when the organization should be successful at reducing the need.

So what can a champion of action do? Whether you are the chair, a director or the ED, try these ideas in whatever order makes sense in your organization.

Idea One: Drag them out of their comfort zone

It is not enough just to recruit new voices to the board – you tried that already, right? And they quickly got educated in how we do things around here, or they were treated as tokens if they represented a new demographic for the board.

If they are out of touch with the people being served, find a way to immerse them in the client’s world, through direct service volunteering, clients or former clients as speakers at board meetings, tours of the worst parts of the community, whatever. Have your health centre board members ever ridden a harm reduction van all night?

Also bring in speakers from communities that are having more success in reducing the need, with fresh approaches. Talk about which innovations might work here.

And by the way, recruit those fresh faces and new demographics, but not as tokens and not with an expectation that they will shut up and listen for six months. That means training existing members, not just orienting new ones. For example, proven volunteers from your client advisory committee can come in prepared to offer ideas at their first meeting. If they do not speak at their first meeting, put them on the agenda for the second meeting. Make it clear there is time set aside, and explicit permission, for them to give their initial impressions and ideas.

Idea Two: Develop a shared vision

A single organization can develop an excellent vision for the community as it would like it to be, with a good strategic planning facilitator who takes a community-driven governance approach.

But that vision would be so much more compelling and achievable if developed with the community instead of for the community. And it has a better chance of being accepted as legitimate.

Bring together groups with related missions for a facilitated forum to see if they can agree on common actions. Make sure to include consumer and advocacy groups, not just service organizations. They will make sure you do not come up with one of those totally uninspiring visions of being the biggest and best organization of its type. In fact, they may help you see a future where you are not needed.

Anyone in human service has to know that caregivers do not have the same program or outcome priorities as those they care for. In the same way, professionally-staffed organizations are usually out of sync with those being served. And they are often misunderstood as well. The dialogue can help align priorities and clear up some of the misunderstandings, though you may need patience to develop a common language.

But now everyone on the board is aware of the wonderful potential for making the community far better, and will be energized to be part of making that happen.

Once an inspiring and far-reaching vision is developed, each organization can consider what its role will be in achieving the vision (its mission, in effect). At the next common meeting, these can be examined for gaps, overlaps and especially synergies. New collaborations will form, and the rate of progress thereafter should astound you.

Idea Three: Make board meetings worthwhile

Are you still looking at agendas that are almost indistinguishable from the prior six meetings? Toss those agendas. Look at what decisions will be needed, and schedule discussions on those decisions at least one board meeting before the decision is to be made. Allow most of the board meeting time for those discussions.

What’s that you say? Board members do not know enough to discuss the issues meaningfully? Well, when asked, they always say they cannot ask good questions or put forward good ideas if they have do not have time to learn and think. So now you have to implement better advance board information systems so they understand what they are discussing and making decisions about.

Yes, that will change the way staff and committees operate – entirely for the better. They have to think more about their recommendations and explain what options they considered and what criteria they used. And they have to plan their time better.

So after the formalities and the informalities of getting the meeting started, the first real agenda section is about making decisions. Real decisions – because at last month’s discussion, the board gave direction to staff or committees about what additional information or analysis was needed, and perhaps some guidance in principle.

And those opening informalities did include an open update round about what is happening in your community, sector, funding sources and government actions, didn’t it? No point making decisions about the community that was. Make them for the community it is becoming and with knowledge of the environmental factors that will influence it. And besides, an urgent item here may require an agenda change.

Then you have the discussion items, and the board education portion. Suddenly there is no time for oral reports – and who will miss them? All reports can be distributed in advance for review, and only significant questions about them are worthy of board time. If an approval or discussion arises from a report, it becomes a decision or discussion item on the agenda, separate from the information report.

Even a real agenda will make a difference in attendance. Actually explain what items will be considered - not “Audit Committee” but “Weaknesses noted in management letter”; not “AGM Update” but “Proposal to integrate educational conference with AGM”. After some real discussions, based on good advance material, board members may start looking forward to meetings.

Idea Four: Make use of skills and interests

We bemoan directors who are recruited for their skills and knowledge but do not use them. Meanwhile, the directors are telling their friends and family that they think their skills and knowledge are wasted.

Some who volunteer are rejected because staff see the offer as a chance to meddle or micromanage, particularly if the director comes from a very small or all-volunteer organization where the board did do almost everything. The directors do not understand that an ED who does not want one of them to overhaul the computer system in some idiosyncratic way might be delighted to have that director as an advisor on procurement of a new database system. And no one tells them – most organizations provide little or no governance training.

If the chair and ED sit down once a year with each director to talk about what s/he would like to learn, what skills they want to offer and what type of work interests them, the organization might be saved from high turnover and problematic recruitment. And it would get the benefit of those skills and knowledge, used appropriately. Channel the energy and expertise to what the organization needs, but be flexible if an initiative relevant to the mission but not on the current strategic priorities list can be done by one or two people with minimal cost or staff support.

And if there is no fit, then at least both sides find out, and the individual can find a different organization to serve. A board spot is freed up for someone with the skills and knowledge needed today. As priorities change, the first person may be asked back.

Idea Five: Get directors out there explaining what the money is for

See above – remember the part about an inspiring vision and your organization’s role in making it happen? And the part about hearing directly from those who benefit from your organization’s services? The combination of involvement in meaningful strategic planning and having talked to real clients (or proxies if your clients are animals or the environment) allows your directors to speak from the heart. Find ways for them to be ambassadors, without asking them to ask for money unless they are among the few who want to. (Note: I am talking here about donations and grants, not about asking friends to come to a gala or a golf tournament.)

Now that it is THEIR plan, for real not just via a rubber stamp, they can be effective voices. Once they go out trying to convince others of the great value the organization brings to the community, they will want to do more internally as well to add to that value. Now they are part of a board that adds value, instead of draining resources. The advance documents that staff grumble about in Idea Two will seem worthwhile to staff once they see the positive differences the board is making, in the community and within.

Since these board members will recruit board members that share their enthusiasm, I predict you will never see backsliding into an apathetic board.

Jane Garthson is a consultant in leadership & ethics to Canada’s Voluntary Sector, 416/512-6765 or 877/645-5417, jane@millsgarthson.ca, www.millsgarthson.ca.

Canadian FundRaiser
Canadian FundRaiserSince 1991, the Canadian FundRaiser™ newsletter has been updating nonprofit managers twice-monthly on news, trends, tips and analysis of developments in the fields of fundraising and nonprofit management.

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