Dani Robbins

Hearing what your Board Members are Saying

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on May 7, 2014 at 10:59 am

The sun has finally come out in my corner of the world; I’ve been out and about more and meeting new people. Since all conversations with new people eventually come around to what people do for a living, invariably the topic rolls around to nonprofit boards.

Those conversations, for the most part, have not been positive. In fact, I keep coming up against instances where it seems like nobody is hearing, understanding or responding to what is being said. I’ve wondered repeatedly if we’re all communicating over or around each other.

When seeking to understand, I believe, we each have to think about not only what is being said but also what is behind what is being said. I’m starting to think I’m alone in that philosophy.

My first thought along these lines was a conversation I had with a board member who told me her board had voted to approve a recommendation without anyone in the room questioning the premise of the recommendation. Someone made a motion. It was seconded and unanimously approved. There was no conversation about community impact, resistance or obstacles to be overcome. No one introduced any opposition, or even any questions – fiduciary, strategic or generative. They all agreed that the decision was great, and no one paused to question if it was, in fact, great, or even viable. That, for me, is the definition of group think and why you should not drink the Kool-Aid at board meetings. For more information on both, please see the post Kool-Aid, Group Think and Generative Governance

I’ve also heard of two board members, on the same board, separately informing agency leadership they would not be serving another term. They both said some version of “this is not a good use of my time.” I wondered did the leadership understand that what those board members are saying is “This is a Yes board. We don’t have any strategic or generative conversations. All we do is approve things you either want to do or have already done.”

Then I wondered what did the leadership do with the information they received? Did they think about why it might feel like every meeting is the same? Or did they assume it was the problem of the board members who were leaving? I’m guessing it was the latter. It is much easier to ignore an issue staring you in the face if you can blame the other person, or in this case, persons. Yet, it is rarely so simple. Anytime you have two or more board members who do not renew their terms, it should give you pause.

Finally, I’ve heard of a board member considering not meeting his minimum giving requirement, because no one has asked him for his gift. He had been advocating for annual individual specific asks of each board member since joining the board. To add fuel to the fire, not only was there was no ask made, but there was a chastising at the board meeting of the board members who hadn’t yet given.

I’m not a fan of minimum gift requirements anyway, but for the agencies that have that requirement, it’s still appropriate to formally ask for the donation, especially to the people who have requested to be asked. You can’t always guess what people want, but you can certainly respond to (reasonable) donor requests. Board members who financially support your agency are donors too, and need to be cultivated and stewarded accordingly.

It happens all the time that board members quit – and also that donors stop giving – because the issue they have brought forth or the request they have made goes unaddressed, or worse, un-discussed. It’s one thing if you bring something up, it’s discussed and decided upon, and if you’re not in the room, someone gets back to you to explain why it can’t move forward. It’s a whole other thing if no one gets back to you at all.

I’ve been guilty of it myself. I’ve served and served on several boards, ranging in size from 12-24. There have been instances that board members suggested things I didn’t do, either because it didn’t make sense (to me), wasn’t realistic or wasn’t feasible. I had to learn to ask for more information or a better idea of how the idea might get implemented.

I, like every exec I know, was trying to keep multiple plates in the air and in an effort to not let any one of them fall, I may have neglected to consider, respond or follow up. Did I always communicate well? I’d like to think I did but it’s probably safe to say I didn’t always. Did I lose a board member because of it? I hope not.

I had to learn to ask for more information and to remember that the issue or idea people present is not always the issue at all. The issue is sometimes behind whatever it is that’s being said. It’s up to each of us to figure out what the topic really is and if it’s possible – or reasonable- to address it. Even in the cases where it’s not possible or reasonable, we have to get back to the person who suggested it.

I said we and not you intentionally. Sometimes board members come up with ideas that are not feasible and sometimes not ethical, or even legal. A response by another board member may be received better, which may have the added benefit of being safer for the exec.

I’m going to say (write?) that again: the exec does not always have to be the one to shoot down an idea. The important thing is that someone responds, not necessarily that you respond. While it’s true that any day can be the day you quit or get fired; today does not have to be that day.

Disengagement is one of our field’s largest issues and lack of responsiveness is one of our biggest hurdles. If we want people to take our field more seriously, we have to start hearing and responding to what they’re saying, and what ever’s behind what they’re saying. We have to understand their expectations, and exceed them!

Is anyone else having these conversations? Have you shared concerns or frustration with your leadership only to have them ignored? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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