There I was, sitting down for a quiet breakfast in a corner table of a local favorite restaurant. I had my newspaper and my laptop, figuring I would check out the sports section and then spend some time working on a proposal for a new potential client - one of my favorite job responsibilities by the way.
As soon as I sat down, two women walked in and sat a nearby booth. They were already engage with another person on speakerphone. It was quickly evident that they were distressed about something, with their anxiety growing worse and worse as their voices got louder and louder. Forget for the moment that this very public airing of grievances was completely inappropriate for the otherwise quiet surroundings. I'll save that for a future article on etiquette when using a coffee shop as your personal office or conference room.
Unaware or unconcerned, these fine folks gave everyone in the restaurant no choice but to listen in on their conversation. It turns out these were volunteers serving on a small nonprofit board and they were lamenting the imminent closing of the organization if they couldn't raise $25,000 in the next three weeks. They were clearly upset and frustrated at their full roster of fellow board members, including the board chair, who all were unwilling or unable to attend an emergency meeting that had been called several days before do deal with this crisis. So this small segment of board members were making a plan for sending out emergency appeal letters to raise money from anyone they could think of. I listened (again, not necessarily by choice) as they rattled off the names of local foundations, major companies, and several wealthy individuals in the community - many that I know to be very charitable in their personal and corporate philanthropy but who I also know to be thoughtful and deliberate in their giving practices. It was clear from the randomness of this prospect list development that they didn't have relationships with these prospective donors that would suggest their interest in responding favorably to this call for help. Bottom line, they were grasping at straws with little hope of saving the organization. Too little, too late!
Lots of things went through my mind as I listened to their plight but I kept coming back to questions about board leadership. How had it come down to just 2 or 3 members sitting in a restaurant making an emergency plan to save the agency? What kind of board members would not make themselves available - in person or at least via a conference call - to deal with a major financial crisis? What kind of leadership is the board chair demonstrating if he or she is not able or willing to pull the entire board together for such an important issue? Where was the resource development committee of the board? Could a financial crisis have been averted if financial updates and fundraising efforts were regularly discussed at board meetings and in regular communications with the board between meetings? Were such communications being done at all? Had board members all been invited to make their own investments to help address this emergency? Why didn't the board have enough foresight to establish some type of reserve or rainy day fund over the years? If unavailable for a discussion as important as this, what great value did these absent members bring to the agency that makes them so worthy of the leadership status we associate with being called a "board member?"
My list of questions goes on and on.
In spite of all the evidence showing that board leadership is crucial to a nonprofit's growth and sustainability, too many of our nonprofits give little more than lip service to the important work of vetting potential board members BEFORE they invite someone to serve. These same organizations are practically apologetic when setting expectations for board service, including the all important responsibilities of making financial gifts and helping securing gifts from others. They fail to recognize the importance of devoting time and attention to board orientation, ongoing education, and relationship building among board members. And I am fairly confident that only a small percentage of boards who do have defined board expectations actually use them in any systematic way to hold members accountable.
A dear friend and colleague has often used the phrase, "People don't sit on a board. They serve on a board." Sitting on a board means little more than occasional attendance at monthly or quarterly board meetings where you get to enjoy an often times free breakfast of ham biscuits and coffee or box lunch with sweet tea, while being fed a healthy dose of updates and reports from the executive director (with materials that you likely throw away as soon as the meeting is over). Board Service takes a commitment of time, energy, financial resources and attention focused on helping an organization that is putting its faith in your leadership as a member of its governing body. Service means asking hard questions and expecting answers. Service means setting the vision and strategic direction of the organization and then embracing your roles in funding that future and helping define and achieve success. Service means participation in committee meetings and events. Service means listening to others describe problems, then making yourself part of a worthwhile and workable solution. Service means showing up and doing something!
So If you are fortunate enough one day to be invited to serve on a nonprofit board, honor the organization's mission by agreeing to be an active and enthusiastic servant leader. If you are serving on a nominating committee for an organization you truly care about, honor its mission by nominating board members who have passed the "serve not sit" litmus test and faithfully commit to the shared work ahead.
Bottom line, failing to value an ongoing program of board development puts your nonprofit at risk. It may mean the potential dissolution of your organization. It could mean that you continue to depend on the next short term grant or the hoped for success of a fundraising event in order to meet payroll. Or it may simply mean that otherwise healthy agencies fails to live in to their full potential because their leaders are not fully engaged. Regardless of which outcome mirrors your organization's circumstance, think about how your actions, or your failure to act, will impact those who are in desperate need of the good your organization does in your community.
We are all counting on you to be the very best board member you can be!