Are You Complaining Up the Wrong Tree?

| by Shannon Williams

Let’s face it. People like to complain—and your boss is often your target for complaints. For non-profit executive directors, the boss is the board of directors, and most EDs do complain about their boards at some point in their careers.

In working with hundreds of non-profits, the number one complaint I hear is, “My board doesn’t do enough.” You can define doesn’t do enough however you want—they don’t give enough money; they don’t raise enough money; they don’t attend enough events; they don’t support the staff. . . Define it as you wish.

In these cases of complaint, I find more often than not that executive directors have either failed to set clear expectations for board members, or they haven’t really asked them to do whatever they are complaining about.

Case in point, is every member of your board personally solicited for her annual gift by a peer board member who asks for a specific amount? If your board is like many, the board chair (or even the executive director—yikes!) announces at a board meeting that it is time to make your annual gift and your pledge card is in the board packet—that is the extent of the annual board campaign. Then, we act surprised (and disgusted) when board members don’t give as much as we think they should. We haven’t asked for a specific amount. We have not valued them with a conversation about our organization and a real invitation to invest, and yet we blame them for not doing what we want them to do.  Hmmm . . . are we complaining up the wrong tree?

Another example is the dreaded sign up list passed around the board meeting. You know, someone says, we really need people to sign up to man the booth at the County Fair next week. The blank sheet of paper goes around and we can’t understand why no one signed up. Have we talked with board members collectively and individually about our expectation that every board member serve as an ambassador at two community events each year? Have we trained them on how to be an ambassador? Have we prepared a list of Frequently Asked Questions for them and helped them tell the story of our organization so they feel comfortable being our ambassador? More often than not, the answer is no. Again, it feels like we are complaining up the wrong tree.

As summer comes to a close, folks return from vacations and boards begin to ramp back up, it is the perfect time to ask yourself whether you have equipped your board to be the kind of board you want them to be. If the answer is no, then it is up to you give them the resources they need to serve in a way that is meaningful to them and to your organization. If the answer is yes, then you should be well on your way to a successful year.

Have you ever complained up the wrong tree or know someone who has? How did you fix it? Join our conversation.

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