During the summer of 2019, I was asked to join the board of a local organization I have great affection and affinity towards. I must admit, I was both flattered AND apprehensive. It felt great that the organization’s leadership recognized my strengths and expertise. But it was a new experience, a new group of people, and a new set of expectations I had only ever considered from the outside looking in. As a veteran fundraiser and now a fundraising consultant, I have had plenty of experience “working with board members” and “partnering with volunteers,” but this was the first time I was volunteering at this level, and it was scary.
My second official board meeting was in March of 2020. This was the last in-person meeting I attended for almost two years. While we did our best as a board to navigate the challenges COVID-19 presented, there were many moments when the staff and the board felt disconnected and overwhelmed. Additionally, the organization and our board had an essential and painful inflection point that required the entire leadership, me included, to examine ourselves, our motives, and our willingness to contribute authentically. It was a challenging moment of evolution for everyone involved.
This experience has led me to ponder the need for and purposes of nonprofit boards. I have come to believe that it is absurd that a group of outside volunteers, many with little to no experience working, managing, or leading in the nonprofit sector, have so much power and authority. On Episode 52 of The Intentional Fundraiser Podcast, Andy Robinson, a nonprofit consultant and trainer, said, “In what universe is it a good idea to have amateurs supervising professionals?” And yet, this is the universe that we are all living in.
The need for and role of a nonprofit board has evolved over the past 400 years, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony created the first American board. However, many problematic, antiquated, and inequitable flaws dating back to the creation of that first board remain. And let’s be honest, there are books and classes and entire movements that uplift these flaws and dysfunctions that our society has continued to embrace and perpetuate from colonial America. These flaws create unhealthy power dynamics and untenable environments, making it difficult for nonprofit organizations to authentically thrive and meet the needs of those they exist to serve.
However, it is not impossible to have a board that truly acts in partnership with its community. This is the kind of board we strive to be, and it is ongoing work. In the past two years since our board’s crisis, we have worked to recalibrate our relationship with the organization, its staff, and our role as its board. It required us to ask, honestly answer, and discuss together questions like:
• Why did I join the board and why have I stayed on the board?
• What ideas and biases do I need to give up to remain a healthy force for this mission?
• What am I able and willing to give of my time and talents to this organization?
• What is the board’s role in relationship to this amazing organization and the community we serve?
• How are we showing up as thought partners, not micromanagers, for each other and the organization’s leadership?
I encourage all boards to have discussions that include these types of reflections on a regular basis. Don’t wait until you’re in crisis. These topics should be part of the normal conversation that keeps your board focused on the community you serve and grounded in the work. In fact, if boards were regularly reflective and these conversations were normalized, there would be a lot less crisis!
For us, these were difficult, yet honest, conversations. And since we’ve started having them regularly, we have come a long way. And yet, we know we haven’t “arrived.” There will always be more work to do and more support to give so our organization, its members, and those we serve can thrive.
This level of group and self-reflection can be painful…I KNOW! But that’s the brilliance of it. We must all approach board service with willingness to work on ourselves. As Andy Robinson pointed out, we are the amateurs in this scenario. Board members must come to this role with the utmost respect for the professional expertise that the staff and the community bring. They are the leaders of this work, and the best boards act as supportive partners in this endeavor.
So, I encourage all boards to regularly reflect, both individually and as a group, on these existential questions. To show up as helpful and expansive in your board membership, you must be willing to ask these types of questions, answer honestly, and then do the work to root out bias and other dysfunctional tendencies. This individual and collective work will lead to the needed innovation and change for future versions of the nonprofit board. I am motivated to work toward that future and I hope you will join me.
Want to talk more about nonprofit boards (especially board fundraising)? Let’s chat! Email us at [email protected], we can’t wait to hear from you!