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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Her online grantwriting class is available at www.janetlevineconsulting.com/classes.html.