Great Boards for Small Groups

Andy Robinson




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Table of Contents

Read an Excerpt
















































































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Great Boards for Small Groups
A 1-Hour Guide to Governing a Growing Nonprofit

by Andy Robinson, 110 pp.

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?”

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.

You can reach him at

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Table of Contents

  1. Your best board
  2. The evolving board: How governance changes as organizations change
  3. Board and staff: The separation of powers
  4. “Why did they ask me?”
  5. “Can I see a job description?”
  6. Reciprocal board agreements: What you give, what you receive in return
  7. The gift of time: How much is enough?
  8. Designing your best board
  9. Where do board members come from?
  10. “How do we ask them to join our board?”
  11. Board renewal: Good work that never ends
  12. Five options for board orientation
  13. Encouraging turnover: The value of term limits
  14. How to create a great agenda (and then cancel the meeting)
  15. Building consensus
  16. Deliberation vs. action
  17. Committees: Don’t overdo it
  18. Give generously – people are paying attention
  19. Why board members can’t (or won’t) raise money
  20. One solution: The board fundraising menu
  21. Board fundraising agreements
  22. Setting goals for board giving and getting
  23. How to fix it: Poor attendance at meetings
  24. How to fix it: Poor follow-through on commitments
  25. How to fix it: Micro-management and confusion about roles
  26. How to fix it: Personal agendas and conflicts of interest
  27. How to fix it: Inactive board members who really need to leave
  28. Evaluate your board, evaluate yourself
  29. 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
Meeting agenda

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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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