Inspire Your Board to Act

Serving on the board of a large, well-known, institutionalized nonprofit is its own reward and brings lots of prestige. But let’s face it, sitting on the board of a smaller, grassroots organization brings a lot less cache and, in most cases, a great deal more work.

Inspiring your board to help promote your mission, open doors, and raise money is an unending challenge for most emerging, lesser known organizations. Too often, we see nonprofits that settle for a polite, complacent handful of folks who meet periodically and sign off on financials before listening politely to reports.

But your board could and should be so much more! Here are two secrets to motivating your board to be the best it can be.

The first secret is that you consider the board not as a group but as a collection of unique individuals. How and why certain people respond to stimuli and are motivated to act is a deeply personal trait.

  1. Spend time in person, one on one, with each board member. Get acquainted on a personal level. This is usually the board chair’s role. Ask about their work, their families, their backgrounds. Do a lot of listening.
  2. What is each person’s trigger, their self-interest? Every volunteer has a core motivation why they agreed to serve, and it’s your job to figure out what it is (even if the trigger is not acknowledged or defined out loud). Have they overcome the challenge that your nonprofit addresses? Are they grateful or feeling guilty because life has been unusually good to them? Is their obligation to serve based on belief or faith? Does their employer encourage civic involvement? Do their egos seek the spotlight? Are they resume-builders? Are they motivated by achieving leadership status, i.e., chair? There isn’t a “wrong” answer, but simply, finding the right match or role for every kind of person.
  3. Everyone feels busy, but each of us defines that word differently. Have a candid conversation about how much time the person can give to your nonprofit. The question is a matter of priority–people make time for the tasks that matter most. If you look at your strategic plan or annual program of work, there are all kinds of ways for board members to make a difference.
  4. What roles and tasks best match this person? Schmoozers, networkers and extroverts are great for outreach and development; engineers and systems analysts can do wonders to help streamline and gauge operations. Introverts can review bylaws while creative people help produce events. Small business owners are usually tremendous at earned income; recent retirees can make wonderful volunteer managers. Too often, we are driven by ‘what we need done’ instead of ‘what this person would be best at.’
  5. Again with this profile in mind, determine what kind of accountability or measurement process this person would be comfortable with. A monthly phone call from a committee chair? An informal, roundtable check-in during meetings? A defined goal for the year set in a private meeting with the chair? Get this piece wrong and you can lose a board member outright.
  6. The person’s profile will also tell you what recognition or reward they seek.

The second secret of motivating your board is to relentlessly reinforce the difference that your organization is making in peoples’ lives. Don’t ever take your board’s time, or interest, for granted.

  1. Make sure that the people on your board have frequent and meaningful personal contact with the people you serve. If this is never established or neglected, it’s easy to see how a volunteer can lose interest in the organization and stop working on your behalf.
  2. One half of the impact equation is fresh and compelling data. Always have more data on hand than would be required for your board’s financial and operational oversight. Give quick snapshots about year-to-year comparisons, trends in delivery or outcomes, or shifts in the way that the world or your industry is evolving that change the way you define success.
  3. The other, equally critical half of the impact equation is storytelling. Never have a meeting without a story. Create opportunities for other staff or clients to be heard.
  4. All in all, your goal is to send your board away after every meeting feeling proud of their commitment to serve and reassured that their time is well spent. Every hour they give to you is time that you can engage them, entertain them, educate them, and enrich them. With a board experience at a consistently high level, motivating your directors to act on your organization’s behalf won’t even be an issue.