Over the past six months, I’ve been working with a delightful nonprofit board of directors. The board came to me because they knew they had several challenges after years of smooth sailing, and they could not quite identify a pathway through those challenges.
I love this kind of work because it is based on dedicated, committed, and hardworking people who are committed to a mission, and who’ve been successful in several areas of their lives but haven’t experienced anything quite like this. The benefit I bring is my vast experience in nonprofit leadership, serving on boards, and consulting with a range of nonprofits. In this particular case, I also happen to have experience in and a passion for their area of focus, so that was just a bonus – for me and them!
As we began our relationship, I conducted an initial assessment and quickly uncovered some major gaps:
There was no strategic plan in place for the board. Essentially, all the board members were working very hard individually, but they weren’t sure what direction they were headed collectively.
It was like everyone jumped in their separate rowboats at the shore, and then rowed hard and with great skill. Some ended up in England, others went to Spain, and others headed north straight up the coast while some were still on the beach – hot, sweaty, and fatigued because while their eagerness to perform was high, they had no clear direction, and so they were exhausted from being ready.
We spent a full session on coming up with a plan for what their priorities are and how they will move forward individually and collectively to complete what must get done.
In a just a few months, they’ve already knocked off some tough work that, at first glance, seemed arduous. But with a clear plan and measurements of achievement, the work was accomplished successfully.
Each board member comes to the table with unique and authentic areas of strength. When those are revealed and understood, each member can rest a bit easier knowing they don’t have to worry – or take part or have a strong opinion – about every task. Instead, they can have confidence that another board member or a task force can handle it fully and report back.
We continue to work on task discovery and bringing strengths to light. It is a journey, and it is critical to build trust. It is through this building of trust that each board member can experience less anxiety and more ease.
The board members all value peace and harmony, which is great. But healthy conflict must be present so that teams can participate in creative and efficient problem-solving.
We’ve done a big chunk of work on developing communication norms, speaking the unspoken truth, and being clear on decisions through voting.
The board has embraced this new process, and they are seeing the effective result of engaging in discussions that may be hard, but seeing them through until the end while valuing each other’s strengths and friendship.
Roles and Responsibilities
The roles of the members of the board were narrowly defined and, because there was no strategic plan, there were also minimal concrete goals. They had some big informal goals which were more like desires that were bantered about. People wished they were making progress toward them, but the lack of a plan resulted in no map to achievement. This caused a sense of failure when yet another year ended with no progress on their big goals – sigh.
One of the priorities in their strategic plan was to look at board roles and responsibilities, and to explore the structure of the board to ensure that the highest quality of work is completed with the least amount of burnout.
The first committee in place was the hiring committee for a new director. The entire board gained confidence in the committee process when that task was completed effectively and with clear communication to the rest of the board throughout the process.
Starting with an early win builds efficacy and a belief that this can work! The board is now going through the process of identifying what roles are needed and how a committee structure can fulfill those roles effectively and efficiently.
Also, the board has had a sense they were lucky to have the members they’ve had, and that anybody who wanted to volunteer to serve was better than nobody.
The work on roles and responsibilities has informed a new perspective about engaging and recruiting people based on what is needed to fulfill the mission of the organization.
This has been an entirely new viewpoint and has actually empowered the board members to move from a scarcity mentality for board recruitment to a mentality where they are attracting the right match.
The other benefit is that members of the board who were feeling hopeless about ever stepping off because there is no one else with their skill set – Who will do the work if I leave? – are now feeling empowered and excited by the idea of set terms instead of staying on until you find your replacement.
The board is reenergized by this understanding that board recruitment is an ongoing full-board responsibility and is based on what its needs are versus who they can convince to join.
The board’s worst fear was never discussed – what if the current director resigns? Volunteer boards with members who have busy lives and other commitments often fail to plan for succession. Why? Because it can be a tough conversation. It can be emotional, and they can feel unskilled or unknowledgeable about how to hire. Directors – especially long-term directors and founding directors – often have to be dragged to the conversation.
A former nonprofit board I worked with for nearly three years asked their long-term Executive Director to prepare a succession plan – several times. This ED absolutely refused to have the conversation and missed every deadline to submit a plan. This was an astute, high-powered board and, unfortunately, the refusal to develop their own succession plan was a contributing factor to the Executive Director’s departure in a way that wasn’t quite as graceful as they would have liked.
In the case of the nonprofit I’m currently working with, they experienced a sudden and unexpected vacancy at the director level. It caught the board unaware and resulted in a panic hire that wasn’t the best match for the long term.
Had we been working together at that time, I would have recommended they contract a skilled interim Executive Director to manage the day-to-day, and even assist in an assessment of what is most needed in a new director. After an interim ED was in place, then they could do a thorough search to hire the best possible fit. This method gives everyone some breathing room and offers staff an opportunity to adjust to change.
In my experience, when a long-term director leaves, the new person has a short tenure. It is too challenging to deal with the grief of staff, and sometimes the parties your mission serves, as well as make the adjustments and corrections that always come to light when a long-term director leaves. It isn’t a negative reflection on the work they’ve done, it is more a case that the long-term director has grown the systems and adapted to all the workarounds.
A new set of eyes has a new perspective, but they frequently become buried under others’ resistance to change and watchful, critical eyes seeking a place to lay blame for their own discomfort during the change process.
An interim director who is hired expressly to keep things on track through the change process can take the heat because they know there is an end to their time there, and the newly-hired permanent director is a relief to the staff. Being an effective interim isn’t for the faint of heart but it is rewarding work, and an experienced and skillful interim is a godsend to boards managing change.
We still have a great deal of work to do. The board retains me for coaching and consultation as needed, I frequently attend board meetings, and we have a couple of trainings coming up.
They were able to hire a perfect match as the new director and show deep appreciation and support for their earlier hire, who wasn’t quite ready for the role, by making a position change.
The empowerment and excitement at the board level are palpable. Their one-to-one coaching sessions used to be filled with How soon can I responsibly resign from this thing? but are now focused on moving forward.
I love nonprofits because I love mission work and the passion that abounds, but I also know that there is a hesitancy to invest in consulting instead of programming. That is a shortsighted view, as you can see in the examples above.
Through consulting, this nonprofit will make huge gains in advancement of their mission, and their constituents are seeing the change in the delivery of service and the way they communicate their message.
The time I spent on assessment and understanding the culture, climate, history, and possibility of the mission – and in getting to know the people – prevented this from being a huge intervention. Sometimes simple shifts have the biggest result, and many times those shifts are simply in perspective – how we are looking at the problem or the solution.
If you are connected with a nonprofit that is facing succession or has a board that is currently stuck, give me a call. Moving forward isn’t as tricky as it can feel when you are on the inside, especially when you have help from a fresh perspective from the outside.
“Beth has been a lifesaver for our organization. Her knowledge base is extraordinary and her communication skills are superb. She has helped us immensely in gaining clarity on our priorities, working efficiently, and establishing a strong structure and a strong board. Having her guidance and support has been invaluable to our organization.”
~Nancy Cohn, Board President
P.S. Speaking of blocked perspectives, check out the newest activity kit for helping teams and groups learn skills required for creative problem-solving and gaining insights: Blocked Perspective
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