Why Board Term Limits Matter

term limits

I have had this conversation so often I can write both parts of the script.

Joan: “So when does your chair’s term end?”
E.D.: “Oh, well we don’t really have term limits.”
Joan: “You don’t really have them?”
E.D.: “I think they are in the by laws or maybe they aren’t – I don’t really know – it doesn’t matter I suppose. Board members would revolt if we tried to enforce them”
Joan: “Revolt?” Why?
E.D.: “Well Cindy has been willing to be board chair for the last six years and frankly, no one else wants the job. And as I think about, no one else would be very good.”

So what exactly is the BIG FAT PROBLEM?

Ignoring the bylaws? Nope. Although that is a problem.

No mention that Cindy is a great chair? Nope not the headline.

No one else wants the job? Getting warmer, but nope.

Give up?

OK, let’s talk about the big fat problem and why term limits really really matter:

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Who Should Serve on Your Advisory Board?

advisory board

Recently I had a long conversation with a CEO client of mine. The topic of our session: her advisory board.

Her question was straightforward enough: Who should serve on our advisory board?

She then began to rattle off names – suggesting the founder, former board members.

I held up a metaphorical stop sign and asked her to tell me the purpose of her advisory board. She was stumped.

She said something like, “I’m not totally sure – I think the organization uses the advisory board to connect valuable folks to the organization who can’t afford the fundraising obligation.”

You know, personal giving or solicitation – what is commonly known as the ‘give/get’.

So I gently pointed out that we can’t identify the ‘who’ until we figure out the ‘why.’

And it goes further than that. You can’t talk about the ‘why’ until you figure out the ‘should’. Should an advisory board even exist at your organization?

Let’s get some clarity here. Advisory boards should not be formed to solve a particular problem. We either need to make them really count or we should not create them at all.

In fact, a poorly constructed advisory board can cause more problems than the one it may have been created to solve.

So how can you make an advisory board really count?

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The One Key to a Great Board Meeting

key great board meeting

I enjoyed an email from a client last week. This CEO had received an email from his board chair who had read my recent blog post, 22 Signs Your Board Meetings Suck, and decided to assess their organization’s last board meeting. The subject line read simply:

“Hey! Our board meeting hardly sucked at all!”

Turns out that my client’s organization understands the value of a great board meeting. How wonderful is that! And how sadly infrequent.

Far too often, a board meeting is big fat missed opportunity to inform, enrich and engage board members in order to ignite them to be the best ambassadors they can be.

Here’s part of another email I got. “Hey Joan, OK so my last board meeting sucked. Can your next post offer a prescription for how to make sure our next board meeting will suck less?

Well my friends and readers, I accept that challenge. And I have good news. There is only ONE thing you need to do differently.

Seriously. Just one.

Read on my friends.

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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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22 Signs Your Board Meetings Suck

board meetings suck

Good boards have good board meetings.

Great boards have… well, you get it.

So riddle me this Batpeople… how are your board meetings? Do your members leave feeling energized and ready to be the best ambassadors they can be for your organization? Are they properly prepared ahead of time? Do they understand their roles and responsibilities and stay engaged between meetings?

Or maybe there’s some work to be done.

It’s time to introduce more accountability to board chairs and Executive Directors who kinda dread board meetings. So I have designed a checklist filled with indicators of a board meeting gone bad.

I have seen most of these with my own eyes and then there are the stories that go on for days.

After your next board meeting, your E.D. and board chair should sit together and review this list. If you’re showing more than a few of these signs, you have some real work to do.

Here we go…
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How Nonprofits Can Take Advantage of the 2020 Election Cycle

Listen up! The 2020 election presents a HUGE opportunity for your nonprofit. Here’s how to take advantage of it.

Let’s Play the New Year’s Eve Game!

favorite posts 2016

It’s nearly time to light a menorah, decorate a Christmas tree, do both or neither. You’ll spend time with family or with your chosen family. You will be nearly forced to stop working because the whole world slows down in the last week or two of each year.

At some point in these next few weeks you’ll have time to reflect – to consider who you were and what you accomplished in 2019.

I know. I know. You’ll say, “I can’t believe it. Wasn’t it just Valentine’s Day?” You might utter a few sentences that start with, “If only I…..” And, of course, given the political climate, there will be some jaw dropping and eye rolling.

Perhaps you will use my favorite phrase of 2019. “I can’t even.”

That came in pretty handy every time I read the news.

But I’d like to suggest that you play The New Year’s Eve Game at some point. It’s a very simple look back on the year. You need a way to capture a list of no more than 10 things.

List the 10 biggest things you did this year that make you really really proud to be a nonprofit leader.

That’s it. Just ten things. The biggest things to you – they don’t have to be earth shattering – they can be a small thing that is actually a really big thing. Review them closely, own them. Maybe when they feel right, write an email to your staff and board with your reflections about the list and thank them for the role they played in making that list possible. Let them all know how grateful you are that their passion and determination found its way to your organization. And that their fingerprints are all over each item on the list.

That email will mean the world to them.

Speaking of lists, I have one too. It’s a list of the blog posts I wrote in 2019 that my readers – people like you – seemed to like the most.

It’s not the same kind of list but it does give me pause to reflect on how lucky I am. Over 1 million views of my posts this year supported your work. And in this very crazy and kinda ugly world, I saw thousands of nonprofit leaders – board and staff – working to create a sense of fairness and beauty in a world that often feels painfully lacking in both.  And that makes me feel lucky indeed.

So holiday reflections, a few words of advice, and a list of posts folks found most useful this year. If you missed some of them, it’s a good time to catch up. I hope they help you.

Happy Holidays from a not-so-secret admirer.Continue Reading

Holiday Gifts for Nonprofit Readers

holiday gifts

Nonprofit leaders impress the heck out of me. Not gonna lie.

I call them superheroes for a reason. They raise money, recruit and engage board members, design programs, manage staff, and there are dozens of other important responsibilities they juggle.

But there is one thing that nonprofit leaders make time for that truly surprises me.

Wanna guess?

OK, time’s up.

The answer: THEY READ.

Nonprofit leaders are readers. They look for and consume books for the express purpose of thinking about their work in a smarter way, managing their time, and understanding what leadership is really about. They strive to be really really good at their jobs.

For this reason, we run quarterly book clubs in the Nonprofit Leadership Lab (my online membership program). Members are hungry for resources and always on the hunt for the “thing” that will solve a problem or improve performance.

So is there someone on your gift list this year who works for a nonprofit or is a dedicated board member or volunteer? Need some help finding holiday gifts?

Look no more. Any or all of the following books would be perfect to place adjacent to a box of Chanukah candles or under the glow of the family Christmas tree.Continue Reading

How My Recent Vacation Changed Me


I just had a real honest-to-goodness vacation. I’m still pinching myself.

Not one week. Not even two weeks. Three and a half weeks. Away. Not checking email. Not writing this blog.

And it wasn’t just the length of time that was remarkable. We traveled halfway around the world. The trip of a lifetime to Australia and New Zealand.

I learned a few things during my vacation. More than a few. Really important things that I need to share with you. They are kinda “Dorothy wearing the ruby slipper things” and I believe they will mean something to you. So, stay with me.

But I’ll start with a few basics.

There are five sheep for every one person in New Zealand. The genius behind the Sydney Opera House actually never saw it completed. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is just as thrilling as you might imagine (and they should call it something more than ‘great.’ That’s SO not a big enough word.)

The whole kangaroo with the joey in the pouch – it gives you goosebumps. And yes, everything in New Zealand looks like a set from Lord of the Rings (actually, I believe every nook and cranny of New Zealand was a set element from Lord of the Rings).

And lastly, Jupiter has moons and Saturn has rings. I saw them with my very own eyes.

But I need to tell you the biggest lesson I learned. And it does not require a trip halfway around the world.Continue Reading

The Dirtiest Word in Nonprofits


It was somewhere around day 60 of my tenure as the Executive Director of GLAAD when I figured out the dirtiest word in nonprofits.

Want a hint? I’ll give you two.

  1. It’s not usually a dirty word outside of the nonprofit sector.
  2. And no, it’s not “fundraise” or “committee” or “grant application” or anything like that.

And yes, I realize that last one was two words anyway.

No, it’s something much more problematic for many many nonprofit leaders. In fact, most people I know who are drawn to be an Executive Director don’t handle this word very well. They kind of suck at it.

Want to guess what it is…?

I ask this question when folks sign up for my free online mini-series that premieres this week called High Impact, No Burnout. The idea behind the mini-series is to show you the 3 keys to building a thriving nonprofit without burning out. Which isn’t so easy.

Interested? It starts on Thursday, April 23rd. It’s free. And it very much focuses on how to overcome this dirtiest of words.

You can sign up here, and I encourage you to do so.

I guess I’m about to give away the answer, so keep reading… 🙂Continue Reading