Boards, Management and It All

Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of employees who, for one reason or another, just didn’t work out. Once I actually left a job because two of my staff—one inherited and one who I inexplicably hired—were driving me to imagine inflicting unconscionable violence against them. Worse, the only grounds for firing at this organization would have been for them to be caught engaging in acts of public bestiality.

All that aside, whenever one of my staff didn’t perform at an acceptable level, I always felt it was as much a failure of management–mine—as it was their own failure.

Ditto with Boards. Volunteers are to some degree unpaid staff, performing vital jobs for the nonprofit. Or they would if only they knew what those jobs should be.

Too often potential Board members are recruited by being told that there is “not much” they will have to do…if they have to do anything at all. I’ve been asked to serve on Boards where the Executive Director tells me that my only responsibility will be to show up to at least one of the four quarterly meetings. Really? What, then, is the purpose of having me (or anyone!) on the Board?

Most likely it has something to do with financial support. There’s always a lot of discussion about whether nonprofits should have a “give and/or get” policy for the Board. Questions range from whether this is a good idea at all to should there be a specific size contribution expected from the members or just a “generous gift?”

This issue seems a wrong thing to focus on. It fragments the real job of your Board.

What is that real job? Let’s start by identifying what it is NOT. It’s not fundraising or attending at least 3 out of 4 Board meetings a year. Nor is it “serving on a committee,” though all these things are part of what you should reasonably expect from a good member of your Board.

A Board’s main responsibility is one of governance—ensuring that the organization is both well-run and running well . A big piece of that is the Board’s fiduciary responsibility.

As a Board member, you must help to guarantee that the organization is fiscally sound: Are programs effective? Are any fees that may be charged appropriate? Is there a net gain at the end of the year? If that doesn’t happen—and it often doesn’t—and if there is a gap between money needed and money on hand, then every member of the board has a responsibility to do what is necessary to bridge that gap.

Give and get in action.

A really well-run organization, however, focuses not on gaps but on what is needed to run the programs you want and be the organization you desire. There must be a clear understanding of what it takes to run the organization as you wish it to be. In other words, the goal is to support your vision as well as your mission.

The next step is a discussion and agreement on what funds are on hand for use, what is expected to come in and what is needed to get where you want to go (all this is called the budget process). Then, once that magic number–how much do we have to raise so that we can run the organization as we want it this year, with reserves and investment for next year and beyond—is known, we can intelligently discuss what the Board’s responsibility for that number is.

So yes, I come down firmly on the side of a Board give and get policy. All Board members need to understand that there is cost to be on the Board. It is divided into two parts–the part the Board member personally brings to the table and the amount that the member helps the organization to get. What I don’t agree with is a size gift that has been arbitrarily chosen sometime in the past.

Each year, at the meeting where the budget is adopted, I believe Boards should agree with how much the give and get is–and define what they mean by “Get.” Do they actually solicit for gifts by themselves or do they help in the cultivation of prospects who they have brought to the table; help with continuing stewardship of the donors who had been their identified prospects, and generally help to create that culture of philanthropy.

And that brings us back to management. Good management, I believe, all boils down to two things. The first is that those you are managing buy into what you trying to do. That segues nicely to the second—that those you are managing know what needs to be accomplish and what their role is in getting there.

Regardless of what give or get policy is on the books at most nonprofits, the reality is that few enforce it. Therefore, only a minority of board members comply. Far better to open the discussion up and let the Board decide what it will take this year to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility.

In my experience, not only does the Board take a greater role than what they merely accept, they are far more rigorous in meeting their target when have been part of defining it.

And just as poor performance can indicate a failure of management, when staff—paid and unpaid—exceed expectations, management can give itself a pat on the back for a job very well done.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at


About janetlevineconsulting

For over 20 years, Janet Levine has worked for and with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping to grow their advancement programs. Her consulting company, Janet Levine Consulting, serves a wide range of organizations from small, all-volunteer agencies to major national organizations. She regularly teaches courses in non-profit management, fundraising and grant development, both face-to-face and online at In addition to her nonprofit work, Janet brings years of experience as a business and sales manager in the for-profit sector. She has an MBA from the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University.
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2 Responses to Boards, Management and It All

  1. info says:

    I think you touched on a very important consideration when deciding what a Board's role is and how to evaluate their effectivenes. And that is setting clear expectations! A Board "job" is like any other job – board members need to know what you want them to do, be empowered to do it and be evaluated based on the expectations. If nonprofits are unclear, wishy-washy or misleading with what will be required of a board member, then everyone loses.If you want them to govern tell them to govern; if you want them to donate tell them to donate; and if you want them to fundraise from others tell them how much, how many and in what timeframe. Complaints about boards that don't donate or fundraise is the most common complaint I encounter from our nonprofit clients. When I dig deeper I find that the nonprofit has failed to clearly set these expectations for the Board in almost every case.Often the nonprofit fails to be clear on fundraising expectations because they are fearful that they will scare the board member away. I argue that this is a good thing because then you can fill that role with someone who will be effective at meeting the set expectations rather than someone who doesn't even know they exist.DarrylEXCEL Fundraising

  2. Janet Levine says:

    Couldn't have said it better myself:) I also find that my clients who cannot be clear with their boards have similar problems when it comes to fundraising–they cannot state what they need, why they need it and why the prospect would want to help.

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