Nonprofit Board Governance and Sausage Making: Part 1

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Sausages from Réunion Island.

I first came in contact with a nonprofit board of directors back in 1987 when I volunteered to help an organization plan and implement a publicity campaign for their 5th anniversary celebration. It seemed like a really big deal when I got invited to attend their board meeting and present my ideas. It was in a bank building downtown and I remember being really nervous. I don’t really recall much about the meeting, except that I was impressed.

Since then, I bet I’ve attended at least one board meeting, on average, every single month. Sometimes it’s been the board of an organization where I worked. Sometimes it’s been a board I’ve served on. Sometimes it’s been a board I’ve advised as a consultant. Sometimes all three in the same month! That’s well over 300 board meetings and probably just as many, if not more, committee meetings in 25 years. (Don’t even get me started on committees.)

In all that time, one challenge stands out above all the others. I’ve faced it in every size, shape and type of nonprofit: it’s nearly impossible to change the expectations of current board members regarding their roles and responsibilities in fundraising. And it almost always involves asking them to either start making financial gifts to the organization or getting them to increase their giving.

Generally, changing the expectations of existing board members is extremely difficult because most people believe they are doing the rights things. In psychology that’s known as “self-serving bias”. You’ll probably encounter it often, even if they agree as a group that change is needed.

Of course, you may also encounter board member who will fight change openly. Sometimes you have to wait until they leave. Or, if you think (and decide) that the changes are critical to the survival of the organization, ask them to leave. And that’s not a bad thing. As long as it’s done respectfully and you figure out a way to continue to engage their interest in other ways, they can continue to support the organization.

How have you handled being a change agent in your nonprofit? What strategies or tactics have you used?

Next week, Part 2: real world tips to help you instigate and sustain change (the sausage making part).

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