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Great Boards for Small Groups
A 1-Hour Guide to Governing a Growing Nonprofit
by Andy Robinson, 110 pp., $24.95 (Click here for quantity discount information.)
Yours is a good board, but you want it to be better.
- You want clearly defined objectives ...
- Meetings with more focus ...
- Broader participation in fundraising ...
- And more follow-through between meetings.
You want these and a dozen other tangibles and intangibles that will propel your board from good to great.
Say hello to your guide, Andy Robinson, who has a real knack for offering “forehead-slapping” solutions – “Of course! Why haven’t we been doing this?”
OF RELATED INTEREST: In How to Raise $500 to $5000 From Almost Anyone, Andy Robinson shows you how to prepare for a campaign, whom to approach, where to find them, how to ask, how to make it easy for donors to give, and what to do once you have the commitment.
Take what he says about written agreements among board members. “Any meaningful job description must be reciprocal: it defines what is expected of you, but also what you can expect in return.”
Example: “I accept fiduciary responsibility for the organization and will oversee its financial health and integrity. By the same token, I expect timely, accurate, and complete financial statements to be distributed at least quarterly, one week in advance of the relevant board meeting.”
In other words, the board knows what to expect; the staff knows what to do. Each is accountable. Simple, right? So why does the 10-item sample agreement Robinson provides seem so revolutionary? Perhaps because so few people have tried an agreement like this.
Then there’s what the author calls the “Fundraising Menu.” Here, board members are asked to generate a list of all the ways (direct and indirect) they could assist in fundraising. The list is prioritized and then used to help each trustee prepare a personalized fundraising agreement that meets his or her specific needs, interests, and limitations.
Again, simple, but it’s the closest thing you’ll find to guaranteeing a board’s commitment to raising money.
Toward the end of his book, in a number of “How to Fix It” chapters, Robinson homes in on specific problems, such as poorly attended meetings, spotty follow-through on commitments, inactive board members, narrow consensus, conflicts of interest, weak agendas, and much more.
And Robinson doesn’t offer up easy nostrums. Quite the opposite. Over the past 20 years, as a board member, a volunteer, and a consultant, he’s put into practice what he preaches and stands unshakably behind his fogburning advice.
Great Boards for Small Groups contains 31 brief chapters. In fact the whole book can be read in an hour. Funny thing, though, its impact on those who heed its advice will last for years.
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About the Author
Andy Robinson, also the author of How to Raise $500 to $5000 From Almost Anyone, has been raising money for social change since 1980. As a trainer and consultant, he has assisted nonprofits in 40 states and Canada, leading workshops on fundraising, grantseeking, board development, strategic planning, marketing, leadership development, and earned income strategies.
He specializes in the needs of organizations promoting human rights, social justice, and environmental conservation. In addition to hundreds of local and regional groups, his clients include the American Friends Service Committee, National Wildlife Federation, Neighborhood Reinvestment, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, where he served as training and outreach director.
Andy is a columnist for Contributions Magazine and a regular contributor to the Grassroots Fundraising Journal. His other books include Grassroots Grants: An Activist’s Guide to Grantseeking and Selling Social Change (Without Selling Out): Earned Income Strategies for Nonprofits. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Watch Andy Robinson in action: www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnptquUZgPc
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Table of Contents
- Your best board
- The evolving board: How governance changes as organizations change
- Board and staff: The separation of powers
- “Why did they ask me?”
- “Can I see a job description?”
- Reciprocal board agreements: What you give, what you receive in return
- The gift of time: How much is enough?
- Designing your best board
- Where do board members come from?
- “How do we ask them to join our board?”
- Board renewal: Good work that never ends
- Five options for board orientation
- Encouraging turnover: The value of term limits
- How to create a great agenda (and then cancel the meeting)
- Building consensus
- Deliberation vs. action
- Committees: Don’t overdo it
- Give generously – people are paying attention
- Why board members can’t (or won’t) raise money
- One solution: The board fundraising menu
- Board fundraising agreements
- Setting goals for board giving and getting
- How to fix it: Poor attendance at meetings
- How to fix it: Poor follow-through on commitments
- How to fix it: Micro-management and confusion about roles
- How to fix it: Personal agendas and conflicts of interest
- How to fix it: Inactive board members who really need to leave
- Evaluate your board, evaluate yourself
- If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it
The official documents (and how to use them)
Board job description
Board recruitment matrix
Board application and nomination form
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Excerpt This article is excerpted from Andy Robinson’s book, Great Boards for Small Groups, ©Emerson & Church, Publishers. For reprint permission, please call 508-359-0019.
Board Fundraising Agreements
A big barrier to successful board fundraising is the tendency to require all trustees to participate in the same activities and meet the same benchmarks: identify 20 prospects, sell 20 raffle tickets, apologize 20 times when asking for money, and so forth. Since we all begin with varied interests, abilities, and levels of commitment, a regimented approach like this is bound to fail.
To remove the barrier, help your board members create personalized fundraising agreements that meet their needs, honor their limitations, and encourage them to participate in a meaningful way.
Here’s how it works. After putting your heads together to develop the menu and prioritize options as discussed in the last chapter, board members take turns choosing:
- Their preferred strategies
- Timing – when they would like to be involved
- How much money they believe each activity will raise
- Any help they might need from other trustees and staff to complete their commitment
To make this work, you’ll need to identify and prepare a few board members to speak first, show some enthusiasm, and be specific. These leaders set the proper tone, which helps other trustees to get over any resistance or self-consciousness about verbalizing their commitments. Your goal is to develop an agreement that looks something like this:
I, Andy Robinson, agree to:
- Donate $50 per month for the next year, for a total annual gift of $600. I will provide my bank account information so the gift can be deducted automatically each month from my account. I will need the staff to help with the paperwork.
- In November, I will mail holiday letters asking my friends and family to make contributions to our organization instead of sending me more holiday gifts I don’t need. I will write the letter, but would like someone else to look it over before I send it. I expect that 10 people will respond with donations of $25 each, for a total of $250.
- Join staff on five major donor visits between January and March. I don’t know how much money these meetings will yield, but I hope that one donor will give $500 and another $1,000. I’ll do my best to help identify prospects, but I am willing to meet with individuals I don’t know, as long as staff sets up the meetings.
The conversation continues around the table with each person laying out his or her individual fundraising plan. While this is happening, someone types notes into the computer. After everyone has spoken, print these documents and have them signed by the chair and each respective board member. Then make photocopies for the individual trustees, the staff, and the board leader – perhaps the chair of the fundraising committee – who will oversee follow-through on these commitments.
The board fundraising agreement reinforces the idea that everyone must participate, but allows a range of choices in how they participate. It shifts the discussion from, “Will you help with fundraising?” to “How will you help with fundraising?”
Setting Goals for Board Giving and Getting
With any volunteer activity, including board service, there is often a gap between intention and results. Board members tend to make commitments they can’t keep. Most people want to do the right thing, but it’s also easy to avoid tasks they don’t really want to do, such as raising money.
To encourage accountability and follow-through, consider setting collective goals for:
- Board giving – how much trustees donate from their own pockets – and
- Board fundraising – how much you collectively raise from other sources.
These goals can be included as specific line items in your annual operating budget.
The first goal requires a frank discussion at the beginning of the budget year. “If we combine our personal gifts,” the trustees are asked, “how much do we think we can give? Are we a $2,000 board? A $10,000 board? What number should we shoot for?” If desired, each individual’s gift can remain confidential because it is blended into the shared number.
The best strategy is to debate the number, set a tentative goal, hand out pledge forms, ask each trustee to write down the amount of his or her annual gift, and collect the forms.
The board chair, perhaps joined by fundraising staff, leaves the room, tallies up the gifts, and returns to the meeting to report the total. If the goal is met, everybody cheers. If not, trustees can choose to dig a little deeper, which is usually the best choice, or lower the target to reflect the current reality.
The second line item – board fundraising – can be handled in a similar way: add up each individual’s fundraising commitments (see the previous chapter) to reach a collective target for how much money board members will raise on their own initiative.
For example, trustees can decide to seek donations to underwrite a specific line item in the budget – maybe you want to fund a new part-time staff position, or there’s a piece of equipment you really need in the clinic – and then create a fundraising campaign around that line item or project.
By designating budget lines for board giving and board fundraising, you increase accountability. Each time trustees review the budget, these line items stand out. If the board benchmarks aren’t being met, it’s nearly impossible to blame the staff.
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with Andy Robinson
QUESTION: What makes a great board, in your opinion?
Robinson: Just what you’d expect; a list of qualifications that are easy to understand but can be hard to find. Passion for the mission, clear expectations and clearly defined roles, a sense of camaraderie, and enough time to do the job right. It also helps to have a bit of flexibility, humor, and humility.
QUESTION: So why aren’t there more great boards?
Robinson: The word “great” implies ambition, so the goal is inherently difficult. Faced with the challenge of building a strong board, most organizations move in the wrong directions: they fear that the truth will scare away prospective candidates, so they “low-ball” their expectations. Unfortunately, if people can’t meet your board requirements, you’d rather find out before you invite them – and not after they’ve joined the board.
The solution, I think, is to set higher expectations, but also provide the support that trustees need to meet them. I’ve been playing around with the idea of a reciprocal board job description – it itemizes what board members are expected to do, but also lists the tools and training they can expect in return to do their jobs effectively.
QUESTION: It seems almost universal that board and staff have conflicts. Why?
Robinson: The dividing lines between their responsibilities aren’t clearly defined, so they keep stepping on each other’s turf. Inexperienced boards tend to work at the wrong “altitude” by focusing on details better left to staff. This problem is often compounded in small, grassroots organizations; one minute the board is engaged in long-term planning, while the next they're leading hikes, painting the office, volunteering on the telephone hot line, and dragging chairs around for the annual meeting. This creates confusion about the function of the board and who’s supervising whom. There are times when board members are simply volunteers and need to accept staff supervision.
QUESTION: When looking for new trustees, how do you sort out the good candidates from the not-so-good ones?
Robinson: It begins and ends with passion for the mission. Even if a prospective board member fills a dozen specific needs, if he or she isn’t deeply committed to the organization’s work, watch out.
In my experience, the best candidates ask lots of specific questions: “How is the board effective – what’s working? What’s not? How diversified and sustainable is the funding? How much time do you expect of each other? What will the organization do to help us increase our skills as board members?” The tougher the questions, the better. Often these questions come from their less-than-ideal experiences serving on other boards.
QUESTION: Without naming names, in your 25 years of working with nonprofits, how many great boards have you encountered?
Robinson: I’ve seen many that were pretty good, but very few that I would call great. The reality is that most boards do a terrific job in some areas but are lousy in others.
QUESTION: In a recent study (Daring to Lead 2006), only 32% of executive directors felt their board challenged them to be more effective. Does that mean that too many boards are serving as rubber stamps?
Robinson: You know, it depends on the size of the organization. With big institutions that are largely – let’s admit it – staff-driven, this is probably the case. But I have the privilege of working with many grassroots groups that tend to have big goals, but also limited budgets and few staff. In this case, it’s often the other way around: it’s the staff challenging the board to be more effective. When you don’t have a lot of paid employees to do the work, the skill and commitment of volunteer board members can make or break an organization.
QUESTION: How do you hold onto a great trustee?
Robinson: Leg irons are effective, but I’d suggest three other strategies. One, use meetings to make decisions and not just report information. Two, provide appropriate training. Three, show lots of appreciation; feeding people is a good way to begin.
QUESTION: What’s the number one reason that board members quit?
Robinson: I don’t have the data, but I’d guess that most leave due to factors beyond the organization’s control: changes at work, changes at home, less time for volunteering. Some leave due to bad board experiences – conflict, inertia, fear of fundraising – but I’m not sure that board behavior is the primary reason overall. Given our modern lives, a certain amount of turnover is probably inevitable, so savvy nonprofits plan for it by building a leadership pipeline: a volunteer recruitment and retention program, strong committees, and lots of opportunities for emerging leaders to take leadership roles.
QUESTION: For you, what aspect of nonprofit governance is most problematic?
Robinson: You know, we’ve created a weird model: we ask amateurs (volunteer board members) to supervise professionals (paid staff). This is a recipe for confusion, and it explains why so many organizations, once they reach a certain size, are staff-driven – and why the staff members end up challenging the board to engage and participate. Saying this differently, it’s pretty difficult to supervise your supervisor, which is the position so many nonprofit CEOs find themselves in.
QUESTION: Given that challenge, what concrete steps can a nonprofit executive take – right now – to improve his or her board?
Robinson: One, ask the board members – individually and collectively – what tools they need to be more effective – and then share responsibility for providing those tools. Two, work with the board to develop a reciprocal board job description that outlines what board members are expected to do and what they receive in return. Finally, demand that every meeting agenda be built around substantive, board-level decisions.
QUESTION: There’s a lot of lip service about the need for boards to evaluate themselves. Boards can become pretty closed, especially if a number of members have served for years. Isn’t it unrealistic to think boards can objectively evaluate themselves? And if they won’t, how will they ever change?
Robinson: Don’t get stuck on the word “objectively.” The best evaluation processes begin with a personal self-evaluation: “How am I doing on the board? Am I contributing all that I can? Do I find the experience satisfying? What skills do I need to be more effective?” These questions are deeply subjective, but simply by encouraging these kinds of internal conversations, I’ve seen many trustees improve their performance or find a way to leave the board and make room for new talent.
QUESTION: You’ve probably witnessed some contentious board meetings. Have you seen any fistfights?
Robinson: Not yet, but it might be a relief. I don’t believe in violence, but honest conflict – without cheap shots or personal attacks – can be a fine thing. Rather than clamping our mouths shut and going home angry, it’s healthier for everyone to name the disagreement and deal with it in a spirit of honesty and mutual respect. So recruit board members who are comfortable with conflict and have the skills to discuss it and resolve it.
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