Many nonprofits have difficulty attracting business leaders to serve on their boards. When they are successful, they often lose those leaders within the first year. Ever wonder why?
Sometimes people who have spent their entire career in nonprofits just cannot relate to their counterparts from the business world. Yes, the nonprofit world is different! Yes, your nonprofit is unique! And yes, you are doing wonderful work that benefits your community. But often the business leaders you want to involve on your board are looking more for the bottom-line ROI than the smile on a client’s face or the fact that a program that’s been losing money for years is mission critical.
If you want these individuals to serve, you have to know what will make them comfortable and interested as well as what will make them run for the nearest door.
Coming from a business background myself, I’ve been in positions on boards where I rapidly lost interest in serving for several reasons.
Nonprofit-speak Versus Business-speak
I recall serving on one board where every board meeting was chock-full of acronyms that were meaningless to me, and to top it off, the meetings started at 7 p.m. and lasted three to four hours. These endless hours were spent listening to reports that could have been sent in advance of the meeting. After a long workday, I grew pretty weary of that board.
Those in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors interpret the same words or fill in the blanks differently. Below are some classic examples.
“Let’s meet first thing in the morning.” Nonprofit Speak: 9 a.m.; Business Speak 7 a.m.
“Making a difference means…” Nonprofit SPeak: Our clients are happy—e.g., well-fed, educated, clean and sober, or whatever. Business Speak: A healthy well-educated community is a good place to do business.
“Donors should give to us because…” Nonprofit Speak: We do great work. Business Speak: They benefit from a clear value proposition when they do.
“We measure our success…” Nonprofit Speak: Through good outputs. Business Speak: Through measurable outcomes.
“We need people on our board who…” Nonprofit Speak: Represent the people we serve. Business Speak: Can bring us the money!
“Board members should…” Nonprofit Speak: Give, get, or get off. Business Speak: Feel that they are making a difference.
Lesson Learned: We must begin by making sure we’re all speaking the same language.
Sometimes a Square Peg Does Fit into a Round Hole
When recruiting new board members, it is critical to meet with each prospective board member and find out what each of them is really looking for in serving on your board. Don’t automatically assume that just because the person is a CPA, that the finance committee is the obvious place to put this new board member. I spent eleven years in the banking profession, and every time I was asked to serve on a board, I was placed on the finance committee. Guess what, though? I worked in the marketing department of the bank and was not really a “numbers person,” even though one of my majors was banking and finance. Even if you do have a “finance person” as a prospective board member, a person who crunches numbers all day might just be looking for a creative outlet in board service, or at least something that isn’t part of the person’s day-to-day work.
A perfect example is friend of mine who is an architect. Like me, he was invited to serve on many boards and was always pigeonholed—in his case, into the facilities committee. While I was serving in a staff position at a museum, I was fortunate enough to have a lot of input into building the museum’s board. I suggested my architect friend and was asked by the board to feel him out for his interest in serving. I had lunch with my friend one day and broached the subject. His answer was not surprising to me, although it wasn’t what my board expected. “Linda, I would love to serve on the museum board, but only on one condition—that I am not placed on the facilities committee.” Like me, he had been forced into that slot too many times. After a few more probing questions on my part, I found that he had studied art at the museum while he was in elementary school, and that experience launched his career in architecture. “I would really love to serve on the collections management committee, so if I can serve in that position, I will gladly join the board.” And he did. He was instrumental in assuring that the museum developed an accession and de-accession policy and, by the way, also gave a lot of pro bono architectural services to the museum.
Lesson Learned: Have a strategic plan, know what skills you require to achieve the plan, and recruit people with those skills. Ask board members how much time they can devote to your organization, ask them what skills and interests they have that they think will benefit your organization, then allow people to pursue their interests and use those skills.
Practical Tip: Often a board retreat is a good time to have board members spend some time talking about the skills, talents, and interests each one is willing to contribute to the organization's success.
More Board Members Resign for Lack of Meaningful Work than from Being Over-worked!
Lots of times we are afraid to ask our board members to do too much because we’re afraid they will be scared off. I have long felt that what really turns them off is a lack of meaningful work.
I served on one board that didn’t have strong committees; all the “real work” seemed to be handled by the executive committee, of which I was not a part. Meetings did not have any meat to them, decisions had already been made, and there just didn’t seem to be anything critical for discussion. I frankly got bored and quickly moved on to another board where I felt all the board members were essential to the organization’s success and there was meaningful discussion at board meetings about the vision and future of the organization. In addition, committee work was challenging but fun!
Lesson Learned: Make sure all board members are engaged, see the big picture, and have specific responsibilities that clearly fit into the big picture for which they’ll be held accountable.
How Do We Resolve These Issues?
So, how do you recruit business leaders to serve on your board and, perhaps even more importantly, how do you keep them involved?
Make It Fun, Easy, and Rewarding to Serve on Your Board!
Here are some hints to make it easy to recruit and retain business people for your board:
Let committee chairs establish the best time for their committees to meet, and provide a staff person to take notes and prepare reports for committees. Business people are busy people! They want to offer their ideas, skills, and talents but do not want to be bogged down with things like taking minutes at meetings, preparing agendas and reports, and administrative work that they probably feel is “beneath them.”
Make sure your boardroom looks professional, is neat and clean, has enough seats, and provides all necessary equipment such as LCD projectors and laptops, along with a phone conference system for board members who might be unable to attend in person.
Provide board members with a manual of pertinent data, but don’t expect them to read through extraneous material. (I once sat on a board which provided each board member with a 5” binder containing, among other things, the complete personnel manual—yawn!).
Provide the board manual, reports, and other pertinent materials by email or through portals like the free Basecamp or the subscription BoardEffect, so they can be easily accessed from any location, anytime. Remember business people travel, work odd hours, and are accustomed to working through paperless channels.
Some hints for running the sort of board meetings business people will appreciate include:
1. Design the agenda to contain substantive items with the most critical items early on the agenda.
2. Use a “consent agenda” to save time for inquiry, discussion and decision making.
3. Put time allotments on each agenda item.
4. Send the agenda, committee reports, and support materials in advance. Most board members prefer email, which will save you printing time and costs. Using smartphones, tablets, Doodle Polls, online portals, and the like to access materials, voting on issues (if your bylaws and state regulations permit electronic voting), and selecting convenient meeting times is almost a requirement for many boards. In fact, I just voted for a slate of officers using one of these online polls.
5. Insist on an RSVP and have staff make reminder phone calls or send emails.
6. Encourage maximum participation through the seating arrangement you choose. Be sure that all board members can see each other’s faces and any supporting visuals used in the meeting, such as a PowerPoint presentation.
7. Have place cards for each board member and arrange seating so the cliques don’t always sit together.
8. Hold occasional meetings in a special setting such as a museum, a bird sanctuary, a country club, or the newest hot spot in town to provide a break from the routine location and offer board members a chance to network before or after the meeting.
9. Include a "mission related" segment at each meeting.
10. If there are reports to be made–that is, they are not included in the consent agenda—alternate the order of presentation so no one is always first or last.
11. Involve all board members in decision making.
Efficient board meetings, productive use of board members’ time and placing board members on committees that they find relevant can help you attract and retain good board members. Business leaders will happily sit through meetings that are productive, challenging, and enjoyable. You will be able to retain them on your board if you provide meaningful work, provide efficient ways to communicate and encourage participation.