Whether you are a board chair or an executive director, leading a nonprofit is a special calling. It’s exciting, unnerving, challenging, and fulfilling. It’s a role most of us wouldn’t give up for anything…

We’ve all been there. You find yourself sitting at the head of the table, looking around at all the faces, nodding in agreement to the latest suggestion for your upcoming fundraising event. You mention hiring a new marketing director, expanding your community outreach, and changing one of your current programs. Again, nods from several of the directors. A few questions for more information but generally positive feedback.

They show up. Most of them contribute. They seem to think highly of the organization. They buy a table at your fundraiser and bring their friends. They seem to support the direction your headed. But as you look around at all the politely smiling faces you wonder… What are they really thinking?

What aren’t they telling you, and if you knew, how you could you empower your directors to do more? How could you truly engage them in the agency? What does every board member really wish you knew?

5 Things Your Board Isn’t Telling You

1.“We Need (more) Training.”

Directors consider it an honor to be invited to serve on a board, but they often come with little — if any — prior board experience. Due to the unique intricacies of your nonprofit and their unfamiliarity with board service, they can often benefit from some hands-on training. They are also taking on roles and responsibilities that carry specific legal duties with them, so they will need to understand what those may mean.

Do they know about processes, procedures, and protocols of how the board functions? Hopefully, you have a Board Procedure Manual, but if not, creating one can help them understand how things get done at the board level.

Some agencies have pending problems or challenges so a training session or new director orientation session should include a discussion of those critical areas so each board member can become informed and join the ongoing talks to help resolve them.

Most new, and many existing board members, do not understand the agency’s financial reports. Often they just rely on the CFO, the board treasurer, or other directors to monitor results. This can dangerous since not understanding how the agency is doing financially, or what the numbers are “saying” could lead to big problems in short order. 

2. “What is it you need/want from us?”

Directors — especially new board members — need to understand the specific expectations being placed on them by you — the leader — involving volunteering assignments, fundraising or personal donations, meeting attendance, committee work, etc.

What role do you expect them to play on the board? Are you looking for strategic leadership, or insight? Problem-solving or new ideas? Do you want them to get involved with key staff members? Do you expect them to lead/be involved in a committee? What do you expect in terms of attendance and/or active participation at board meetings?

Admitting that expectations aren’t clear can be a difficult conversation. No one wants to ask potentially uncomfortable questions in front of others, so they may sit there quietly, and a valuable learning opportunity is missed.

3. “Where are we headed, and what is the plan to get there?”

From budgeting to goals, staffing and volunteers, and even programs, your strategic plan should be guiding your every move. Your directors need to understand the plan and its implications.

What are the specific goals for the organization? What are the major initiatives? How will your agency need to change or adjust to meet those goals? How can your board members help to move the plan along? Do they understand how they fit?

Sharing your strategic plan with your board can help to paint a picture for the future of the organization and may provide insight into how they can each provide a unique contribution.

4. “Our board meetings are really lacking.” 

Keep in mind, board members are volunteers. They are choosing to give freely of their time to attend each meeting, and could be doing many other things instead. They also usually have full-time jobs, so when they come to meetings — especially during evening meetings — they may often be spent and ready for a break.

Most directors feel board meetings are too long. Whether it’s revisiting old items again and again without making a decision, a board chair who fails to reign in verbose directors, or an agenda full of staff-level details instead of strategic topics, directors don’t want their time wasted when vital work needs to be done. This can even be one of the most common reasons directors resign from boards before their term expires.

Sometimes meeting agendas are so full of reports that they provide little time for discussion of critical items. Directors can feel that decisions have already been made, and the vote at board meetings is just a formality.

Do you have overbearing or dominant directors on the board? Are they drowning out the new voices? New board members might have more to offer regarding ideas, suggestions, and observations but fear they would not be welcome or receive due consideration. How can you make all directors feel valued and important in this case? Just because a director is quiet doesn’t mean they are always in agreement.

5. “We could be even more effective then we are now if only…”

Most of the time, directors don’t know each other before joining the board, so it’s helpful to provide some time to get acquainted and develop relationships. There are many team building tools to take a group of individuals and unite them into a cohesive team. Don’t underestimate the power of a set of directors who know and trust each other. 

Do you tolerate “slackers” on the board? Your directors may wish that you would address the fact that one or more of the other board members are not pulling their weight or following through on their commitments. This can include those who just “mail in” their participation rather then seriously engaging in board matters.

Are you inadvertently sending the message that your board culture is to avoid conflict, be overly polite or agree with everyone else? This can rob the board of healthy, honest, and essential discussion when essential topics surface. Every board can afford to carry at least one “prickly pear” on it.

These 5 key areas can provide the critical insight you need to not only build a more effective board, but engage your directors, get them involved, and make the experience serving your organization rewarding and fulfilling.

While all of these areas may not be challenges for each nonprofit, it’s likely at least one or two may be inhibiting the effectiveness of your board. If you can, take a few minutes at your next board meeting and start a dialogue to collect feedback from your directors. If you’re more comfortable, start engaging one-on-one with key directors to get their input. Even if these challenges exist your board will appreciate you taking action to learn more and work to make the situation better.

Is your board struggling? Find out with the 5 Minute Break Through Quiz.