“We need more board members!” is a common lament I hear from board members at community benefit organizations. The declaration is followed by:
“We used to have 10 board members and now we only have seven.”
“I’m tired of always doing everything, and other board members just show up at the meetings.”
“Our by-laws state that we must have 12 board members, so we must fill those spots.”
Often when this topic surfaces at a board meeting, members start naming people who would be good candidates. Common criteria for “who would be good” range from she works in marketing and we could use some help, to they own a big home on the lake. The prospective board member is contacted, told that the time commitment isn’t big, as the board meetings are limited to two hours each month. Joining a board shouldn’t be switching on and off your involvement meter each month. Joining a board should be an engaging and energizing experience that is always on. It is part of you.
Yet, we accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for. – Pollyanna Principles #1
So, what will more board members make possible? What are we asking individuals to become a part of, and to accomplish what? Taking the time to explore that question gets to the core of what is really going on.
With one community benefit organization, the cry for adding headcount came from two board members who co-chaired an annual fundraising event that consumed them. For the months leading up to the event their singular focus was the event. They had no time or energy to discuss anything else. Post-event they were fried and frustrated. Several board members did not attend the event, others didn’t help. What are board members holding each other accountable for? What will this event can make possible, and for whom? If the answer is “we’ll raise money,” ask what that money will make possible. There’s much more to discuss about fundraising events in future posts. Meanwhile I highly recommend Nonprofit Sustainability – Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability by Bell, Masaoka and Zimmerman. They offer a very practical and methodical approach to mapping every program and fundraising effort according the mission impact and financial viability. The process removes emotions from the equation, and results in a business model that is far different than the usual approach.
So, back to the board dynamics. What is their shared vision and values? A shared vision paints a clear picture of what success will look like. It answers what will the organization make possible, and for whom. Shared values guide all decisions and actions the board makes on behalf of the community. That includes decisions about adding board members. That includes actions that are guides by shared values as it relates to how they support each other. It starts with getting very clear on what success will look like, and what they are aiming for on behalf of the community they serve.
Creating the space for a conversation that digs into governance and board composition when it isn’t coming from a place of frustration, or fear sparked by the assumption that we must follow the by-laws or else we’ll get in trouble, allows for thoughtful conversations together. Change the questions we ask and start with: What are the attributes that all board members must have? What is unacceptable to us? See what that uncovers together. See what you HAVE before leaping to what you think you NEED. Start from a place of abundance, not scarcity.