Ignite Your Board Members’ Passion

board members

Originally posted at the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Imagine this. Your gala is three weeks away, and even accounting for last-minute registrations, you are well below target. You review the list of table captains. The poorest performers? Five of your board members. Three of them aren’t even hosting a table.

You fight the urge to rant and, instead, create a short video highlighting everything the board needs to know to get the word out and increase attendance. You share it with the full board. Separately you ask the board chair to hit ‘reply all’ with an encouraging message to other trustees to recruit attendees.

Four hours later, no responses. The problem: You have a bad board. You’re not alone.

A few years back, Stanford University joined forces with BoardSource and GuideStar to survey nonprofits’ board members about their boards. The picture is startling and probably reflects some serious underreporting by participants:

Almost half (48 percent) do not believe that their fellow board members are very engaged in their work, based on the time they dedicate to their organization and their reliability in fulfilling their obligations.

What’s most surprising is the degree to which executive directors and staff leaders are in denial about the root of board problems. You might blame your board chair for not holding members accountable. You might blame the nominations committee for recruiting members who don’t care. You’re right to be angry, but you’re wrong about why.

The real problem? It’s you. Across the sector, executive directors and key leaders are not holding up their end of the bargain. It is your job — and the job of every staff member at your organization — to be in the business of stoking your board’s passion, the “pilot light.”

Anyone responsible for board recruitment should identify new members who, first and foremost, are in love with the organization. Skills can be learned, but passion has to be in the DNA. Recruitment efforts must give first priority to candidates whose “pilot light” for your cause is bright. When a board member has that kind of passion, you can feel it.

You won’t hit 100 percent all the time, but most of your board members should arrive with their lights shining. Staff leaders tend to think these bright lights just magically stay bright. They don’t.

“Dim bulb” boards govern poorly; they care less. Board members check their phones at meetings while staff members are sharing successes. They focus on cutting expenses when revenue projections are off. They are responsible for more nonprofit leaders returning calls to recruiters than they will ever know.
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