Board Cafe

Short enough to read over a cup of coffee, Board Café has everything you need and want to know to help you give and get the most out of board service.

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Extreme Board Makeover

Despite the complaints of executive directors that their boards "need training," often the most effective way to change a board is to change the people who are on it. And sometimes, a board itself realizes it needs to change faster and more dramatically than it can by adding a couple of new folks a year.

"I shouldn't be on this board anymore," commented the board member of a large national organization. "My boss' boss should be on this board."

He was recognizing that . . .

How to Have a Board Meeting By Telephone

Your board meeting is Thursday evening. On Wednesday you start getting the calls. One board member is home recuperating from surgery. Another is traveling. Yet another can't spare the time to drive in for the meeting. Can they call in via conference call? Most everyone who works with a board or serves on a board has pondered this question. In this article, we give you some tips on how to make conference call board meetings as effective as they can be.

First, is it legal to hold board meetings by conference call?

Getting to 100% Board Giving

Having 100% of board members make personal donations is a cliche we don't like. It's not a meaningful measure of board member commitment, and typically creates a situation where even the best board members have to be nagged. BUT, if you do have this requirement, here's how to make it as easy as possible.

1. The Annual Basket Pass - At the same board meeting each year (Thanksgiving is easy to remember), pass around a basket or box. The board chair (or fundraising chair) announces: "As this basket goes around, everybody has to put something in it. You can put in a check. You can put in a piece of paper with a pledge amount that you will give by December 15 of this year. Or you can put in a piece of paper that says . . .

How to Keep the Board Under Your Thumb

When nonprofit executive directors say they want their boards to be more "engaged," they often really mean they want the board to have a lively discussion followed by a vote to agree with the executive director. If you're a CEO and want a weak, compliant board, try these tips:

1. Give board members too much information. One board member we know just received a board packet 1,400 pages long: almost three reams of paper! Bonus: you can complain that they never read the packet and if at any time someone claims they weren't informed of something, you can say in a very tired voice, "It was in the board materials last year."

2. Give board members very nice presents and perks. One new CEO was annoyed by the board's rambunctiousness . . .

Ten Biggest Mistakes Boards and Executives Make

"To err is human," and as we all ruefully know, nonprofit board members and executive directors are typically human. Here are some of the biggest mistakes we make:

1. Falling in love with the executive director and letting love diminish critical thinking: Even if you have the world's greatest CEO, that CEO will benefit from your bringing your scrutiny and thinking to the organization's work and to his or her performance. Being in love is great, but bring up the issue of getting the dishes done.

2. Neglecting the . . .

Conflict of Interest . . . or Conflict of Loyalty?

"Conflict of loyalty" is a useful concept and term that gives us another dimension to work with than simply conflict of interest:

In our legitimate desire to avoid conflicts of interest in nonprofits, we typically make two oddly opposite mistakes:

  1. We narrow "conflict of interest" to a strict legal definition and focus only on matters that involve personal financial gain, and
  2. At the same time we are too quick to label any kind of relationship at all as a conflict of interest.

But often, the "conflicts of interest" in nonprofits do not involve personal financial gain. Consider the board member whose commitment to rights for people with disabilities leads her to serve on the boards of two such organizations. At Board A she hears about a new grant opportunity that is opening up at a local foundation. Should she tell Board B about it, or is she obligated not to mention it?

Or what about the deputy director of a nonprofit theater who sits on the board of a battered women's shelter: two very different fields. He's just met someone he thinks would be a great board member for either organization. Should he suggest this person to both, or to which one?

In another example,

A Board Member Crosses the Line

Dear Blue Avocado: I'm the chair of a nonprofit board and I have a problem. We recently voted to support a local measure that would change some zoning regulations in our county. This board member -- I'll call him "Joe" -- was outvoted (he was the only one to vote against it). The staff wrote up our position and put it on our website. Now Joe won't stop emailing the staff and telling them to change a sentence or add something or even to take it down. The staff is spending hours talking with him on the phone about it. What do I do?

Dear Board Chair:

You already know that you have to stop his behavior. The question is how.

You need to send two clear messages: one to Joe and one to the staff:

Twelve Ways to Get a New Executive Director Off on the Right Foot

When a new executive is hired, the board usually breathes a huge sigh of relief. They have likely been working extra hard for weeks or months interviewing candidates or taking on additional tasks, such as managing a fundraising event or overseeing the audit. If you're on a board, before you turn over the reins to a new leader, consider these fast ideas to help get the executive get started on a path to success:

  • Hang in there just a bit longer. It's understandable that board members want to relax once the new executive director is in place, but stay in there at continued intensity for a while longer, and make sure the executive has the support she needs to get off to a great start. A new executive may be reluctant to ask board members to do something, or may be new to the community or field as well. Tip: Assign a committee or an officer to take on the job of monitoring the needs of the new ED.

Ditch Your Board Composition Matrix

You know the board matrix: it has a list of skills and competencies that are "supposed" to be on the board, such as legal, marketing, HR, fundraising, finance. And typically there are also demographic qualities, such as gender, race, age. The board matrix then shows what boxes you presumably need to fill.

What's wrong here is that these board composition matrices focus our attention on what people are, rather than on what the organization needs board members to do.

Let's look at the three failures of board matrix approaches:

1. The skills trap: By identifying skills such as legal or finance, we often end up with the wrong kind of legal or financial professional . . .

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