“We [board members] do this huge amount of work, and we’re volunteers, but the staff never seems to have any response but criticism for us not doing more!”
“I’m the executive director, and the board just seems to focus on what we haven’t accomplished, instead of giving me credit for all the things I have accomplished!”
How many times have we heard (or thought) something similar? Despite admonishments to “give positive feedback,” it often seems that efforts between board and staff of appreciation feel trivial at best, and even hypocritical or enraging at worst. What are some ways to express authentic appreciation that are meaningful to the recipient, and send the right message about values? Seven quick ideas:
1. The day after a board meeting, whatever your role, phone the two people who helped make it a good meeting–the board president, the executive director, the treasurer or anyone who helped move a discussion forward. A quick phone message can be remarkably encouraging.
2. To acknowledge a board member: write a proclamation unique to the board member, and print and frame it, celebrating the board chair’s running the board meetings especially well, or a member negotiating the new lease, or the treasurer helping to choose new accounting software.
3. For the staff as a group: as part of understanding that attracting and retaining the right staff is crucial to an organization’s success, have an annual board discussion on the subject. Start (for instance) with a report from the executive director and Finance Committee on current salaries and what comparable salaries might be at similar nonprofits. They can also bring a plan to board, perhaps taking a two-pronged approach: some near-term raises for the positions that are the most underpaid, and undertake a 3-year process to increase salaries in an affordable way. Make sure this is communicated to staff so that the seriousness with which the board takes the matter and the reality of budget constraints are understood.
4. Ask the executive director to suggest to the board individual staff for recognition by the board. The board can then pass a board resolution detailing accomplishments, and have a board member present it and read it aloud at a staff meeting.
5. As a new board president or at the start of the year, attend a staff meeting. As a volunteer leader, explain how you and the board see your most important tasks over the coming year, and invite questions and comments.
6. For a coalition or an association where board members work at other organizations and also spend considerable time in board service, consider grants to their organizations to show the value of the board service, and help pay, for example, for substitutes or overtime work performed.
7. Where possible, have the organization pay for travel expenses for board members, to demonstrate that board membership is not based on ability to pay.
On the other hand, keep in mind some things not to do:
- Staff should not say, “Board members, thank you for helping us.” Unintentionally this implies that the staff is the core of the organization and board members are ancillary participants who are the helpers to staff. Instead, say, “I’m proud to work for an organization with a board that __________ as effectively as ours does — or “I’m grateful to work for an organization where board members contribute so much.”
- Board members shouldn’t say, “Thank you, staff, for doing all the administrative things we hate doing (heard, for example, in a mostly volunteer organization). Instead, say, “I really value the way your work makes it possible for volunteers to do so much more.”
Celebrate accomplishments and getting through tough periods. Present small gifts and certificates, for example, to all the members of the board-staff strategic planning committee, or to the executive director search committee, or the group that “successfully got us through the accreditation process.”
These quick ideas are, of course, only part of a larger picture for how both appreciation and criticism are shared. Consider taking up just one or two these ideas, and see how people can bloom in their roles when given meaningful thanks and praise.
See also in Blue Avocado:
Rather than send a Thank you to the spouse of the employee; we have given a token gift with a brief note expressing appreciation and why to the employee to pass along to the spouse/family. In our case it was when staff were away from their spouse/family outside of normal work hours for taining or a special project. The gift is often chocolates but always something appropriate that the family group can share.
What a nice idea! Jan
An ED needs to know what the board perceives needs doing AND acknowledgement of accomplishments. Though I think it’s best not to comment on these things at the same time; because it risks sounding like “sure, you’ve done a lot, but….”
For the executive director who perceives that his/her board only focuses on what needs to be done, not what has been accomplished, I suggest that the executive director inform the board and donors what has been accomplished. This could take the form of short emails. Once the Board hears more about what is accomplished, they will be able to relay these things to their friends, family, potential donors and to other board members and staff. – Gloria Rubio-Cortes
I’m not sure about the idea of writing to spouses, etc. In another role someonen with whom I worked did this and the employee found it offensive and intrusive to his personal life. He felt the boss had overstepped the relationship boundaries. Since observing that, I’ve never emulated my colleague’s action.
What a creative idea to send a note of appreciation to someone’s husband/wife/partner! I’m going to try that.
I really like your ideas as well as the importance of staff and board communicating directly. Having a board member attend a staff meeting and inviting staff to attend board meetings has really helped us make our organization seem more cohesive.
Frequent gestures of thanks and recognition are almost always appreciated and make for a happier, more productive work place. However, the problem expressed by the executive director whose board focuses on what she hasn’t accomplished, instead of what she has, may indicate a lack of agreement on organizational goals, objectives, and time tables. This problem is best addressed with an annual work plan tied to the organization’s multi-year strategic plan. The director should be evaluated on her progress against the agreed-upon plan. If the board wishes to amend the plan during the year, it should do so formally after weighing the possible impacts of the new initiative or direction on the existing work plan. New board members should be oriented to the plan so they understand why the executive director allocates her time as she does.
All interesting ideas – I think it’s important to also remember that the foundation for informal feedback should be regular formal assessments – for staff, the executive and the board. Formal assessments should be comprehensive and a balance of the positives and a forward-looking plan for improving. Without a such a foundation, an occasional “attaboy” may still leave a person wondering about their overall contribution and value to the organization.
Great ideas. Here’s another one. Take a moment to write a handwritten note of appreciation to the husband/wife, employer, or another person close to either a board member or staff member expressing appreciation for their time away from work/family, committment and energy (especially following a time consuming event or project). You’ll win bonus points! with both the staff/board person, as well as person to whom the note is sent.
Great suggestions, thanks. I have worked with many different Boards but my most recent experience with a Board chair and his interest to reach out to staff has been by far the most successful. After each Board meeting he writes a memo (1+ pages) to the staff providing an update on what happend at the Board meeting that the staff would like hearing about. He also mentions his appreciation for an item or two that I, as the Interim ED, have reported on that the staff (as a whole or an individual) has done well. Credibility and appreciation all around–it demistifies the people and the issues and greatly enhances communication. It takes time but is very well worth it.