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Highly effective what?!?

I advise a lot of nonprofit leaders. And often a recurring theme is that of dysfunctional boards and especially dysfunctional board presidents/chairs. So how do you get from dysfunctional to highly effective?

The long answer--and the short answer--is by being intentional. Be intentional about your processes in selecting board members. Be intentional in defining board roles and responsibilities. Be intentional about onboarding new and continuing board members. Be intentional about defining what makes a good board president and executive committee.

Taking a step or two backward, I can tell you that today I am good friends with several former board presidents that I served with while I was an executive director. In fact, I would say I am friends with 80% of those former board presidents. But that being said, some of those people--and there is no point in telling them this now--were the absolute WORST board presidents ever! For example, I had this terrific human being who cares passionately about programming and education. He was awesome at evaluating our existing programs and helping me to determine ways to improve and have a bigger impact. But that same board chair hated raising money and so would often say to the whole board: "I don't care about this and don't want to put any pressure on you." Unbeknownst to him, my board fundraising went down more than 75% during his two years as our board leader. Why? Because he gave them permission to NOT give. And it was unbeknownst to him because he requested that I never speak to him about our finances, budget or fundraising.

Another board chair who I am friendly with adopted a "Keep Her on Her Toes" strategy. She saw herself as my manager and decided that I should never know where I stood with her, so she would arbitrarily chastise me one day and then be my best buddy the next. It was confusing and ineffective (and shhhh! It may have even resulted in my earlier-than-planned retirement.)

What did these two dysfunctional board presidents have in common? A lack of understanding of what a board president's real role in the organization was. For example, in most nonprofits, board chairs are NOT to express their opinions in contentious board discussions but to facilitate rich and deep conversations, then move those discussions--if appropriate--to a motion and a board vote. Then, and only then, if required to break a tie, do they vote their own heart and opinion. They should be PARTNERS with the nonprofit CEO rather than supervisor keeping an employee on his or her toes.

As for fundraising, every board member, including board chairs, should be giving meaningful gifts themselves and encouraging others to do so. They should act as ambassadors for the organization and you cannot have impactful, effective programming (that fulfills your mission) if you are not also raising the money to offer those programs and pay the staff who are running them. The FIRST people to lead in fundraising should be the board members.

So back to the intentional part. How do we do this? Again, the answer is pretty simple. It's strategic planning...the whole process where we get everyone's input and support of common priorities and goals. If you don't have a clear description of roles and responsibilities, strategic planning will help identify that and bring it to the top of your needs. If you don't have a strong recruitment and orientation process, that will show in board members behaving in dysfunctional ways. That will also come up during the planning process.

Strategic planning isn't busy work or a form that you have completed so you can check that box on a grant application. It is a path, in fact the ONLY path, to your organization moving away from dysfunction and toward becoming highly effective in all ways.

Now go forth and start planning intentionally with your entire board and leadership team! (And if you need a little bit of help, you know who to call.)


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