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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 11:27 pm | Fair 51º


Cynder Sinclair: Five Proven Steps to Get Your Nonprofit Board Unstuck

Has your nonprofit board lost its enthusiasm? Are your board meetings boring or contentious? Is your board lost in the weeds of micromanagement?

Don’t worry, this happens to many nonprofit boards regardless of how successful they may be. The trick is to quickly recognize when things are going south and get out ahead of the trend. Even better, look for ways to proactively engage board members and invigorate board meetings.

Board members should feel inspired during and after board meetings. After all, they joined the board to make a difference in a cause they embrace. If your board has gotten off track and people are grumbling about how it’s not fun anymore, follow these five steps to restore your board to optimum health and effectiveness.

» 1. Board: Know Thyself

One board I worked with had a mix of members — some had been on the board for 10 to 12 years and others for just a few months. When the longtime members first joined, the board was a working board by necessity. There weren’t many staff members to do the work and the young organization lacked sufficient resources. Board members gladly pitched in with their time, expertise and financial resources. It was their baby.

Over time the organization grew in size and scope. Now it needed its board to focus on policy and governance rather than day-to-day management.

But many of the longtime board members felt sidelined and unappreciated. They didn’t realize that, like a child’s needs change with growth, so an organization’s life cycle requires the board to adapt its role to changing needs. The organization now needed a board to function at a higher level — focusing on policy and governance rather than management. Thankfully, the board was able to transition to a more productive role, but it took several painful months.

So, the first step in restoring a board to good health is to know what the organization needs rather than what board members are used to. Identify its stage in the life cycle and determine exactly what type of board is needed. Then conduct board training to clarify roles and responsibilities. Establish and nurture a true partnership with the executive director, based on mutual trust and respect. Be sure to conduct annual self-evaluations and make adjustments in response to the findings.

» 2. Engage Every Board Member

Everyone wants to feel needed, like they are making a difference. Or else they lose interest and either just show up for meetings as uninterested observers or create contention among other members. Choose each board member according to the particular needs of the organization. And as each board member is recruited, clearly explain the expertise you hope s/he will bring to the board.

Committees are a great way to involve board members, but be sure the committee role is clear and actually needed. If it’s a short-term project, consider forming an ad hoc committee rather than a standing one and meet only when necessary. At board meetings be sure to report on any special contribution by individual board members so they know their work is appreciated. This also sets a good example to encourage other members to become more engaged.

» 3. Clarify Decision Making Processes

If your board doesn’t have a clear policy about how it makes decisions, the most forceful board members will step into the void and direct traffic, making other board members frustrated and confused. Decision making should occur at board meetings with a clearly established format. The executive director and board chair meet well in advance of the board meeting to create the agenda, with input invited from board members and even senior staff. The agenda is sent out to board members a week prior to the meeting along with any supporting materials.

The board chair makes it clear that members are expected to adhere to the agenda, not bringing up issues outside of the agenda. If there is a legitimate reason to add a topic to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, it must be voted on. Keeping board meetings focused and on track will keep board members interested and give them a sense of direction and accomplishment. But it takes a strong chair who understands his/her role to conduct a well-focused meeting. And the chair should encourage a high level of participation from all members.

When a member makes a motion, it should be worded, “I move” or “I make a motion that ... .” The chair waits for someone to second the motion and then invites discussion. Once discussion is complete the chair will ask for a vote. If the discussion goes on too long, any member can say, “I call for the question,” which will initiate a vote.

Be sure to record all decisions in the minutes and avoid reporting on simple discussions. Gather complete background information on decisions to be made at the meeting so members feel prepared. During the discussion, the chair encourages members to use critical thinking by asking clarifying questions while avoiding a spirit of blaming others. A well-crafted agenda, preparation before the meeting, and keeping the meeting on track will engender confidence and ensure no surprises occur.

» 4. Focus on a Vision of the Future

As the Cheshire Cat said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” So an important element of restoring your board is knowing your destination. Involve the entire board in clearly describing the future you are trying to create, what your organization values, and how you plan to hit your targets.

A regular practice of strategic planning will help create a road map to keep everyone on track to achieving goals. But just creating the plan isn’t enough — it’s only a starting point. Routinely measuring progress against the plan will help determine when alterations to the plan are needed. This will keep your strategic plan alive and your organization high functioning.

» 5. Celebrate Success

As you track your organization’s progress toward its goals, be sure to celebrate accomplishments and acknowledge each board member’s and the executive director’s contribution to success. This will go a long way to keeping a spirit of appreciation and fun alive and encourage members to participate at ever higher levels.

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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