How to Get the Best out of Your Board
These practical strategies will help you refocus and reinspire your board.
The past three years have been challenging ones for nonprofit boards. During the pandemic, some board members leaned in too closely while others pulled way back, and the ones who stuck it out with us are tired. We need our board members to be strategic governors, compelling ambassadors, and powerful fundraisers, but how do we get them refocused and reinspired? Here are some practical, no-cost tips to get you going and help you along the way.
How to Elicit More Strategic Governance
Problem You’re Likely Facing: You need your board members to focus on strategic direction and big picture topics like your role in the community and your financial sustainability over time, but they seldom get the opportunity to engage in authentic governance because
- There are too few people doing all the work, doing most of the talking at meetings, and ending up exhausted.
- Board meetings are filled with reports and committee work, not opportunities for generative discussions and strategic leadership.
Solution #1: Engage more people in leadership roles so your board members aren’t overworked. That way they’ll have the bandwidth to focus on overarching issues that affect your long-term health.
We’ve all struggled to get people to volunteer during the last few years. That could be because the tasks we’re asking them to take on are too big. What if we broke down assignments into much
smaller pieces and asked more people who aren’t already on the board to do them? Rather than committees, create “disappearing” task forces so participants can feel a sense of accomplishment
after just a few meetings. Just make sure your task forces are chaired by board members who can keep the work tied to your strategic priorities and the work of other teams.
You can use these short-lived projects to engage people who are longing for connection and purpose, not the usual suspects. The more you ask them to do for your organization, the more ownership they’ll feel, which leads to loyalty and generosity and ambassadorship. Here are some ideas for where to find people you could invite to take on more bite-sized assignments:
- People associated with the venues where you rehearse or perform
- People taking classes in nonprofit management or arts management at a nearby community college
- Current participants or alumni of leadership development programs through your Chamber of Commerce or state association of nonprofits
- People who live in nearby retirement homes
- Current or retired music educators or staff at high school or college music programs
- Partners or family members of your singers and musicians
- Parents of your children and youth chorus or education program participants
- Members of church choirs who want to broaden their circles or hone their skills
- People with disabilities who want to feel more integrated into the community (such as members of the Stroke Association or Brain Injury Association or inclusion advocacy groups)
- Select donors or sponsors
As you examine the kinds of jobs that wear out your board members, you may discover that many of them don’t actually need to be done by someone who is part of your governing board. Peel those tasks off and give them to others who may benefit from taking them on. Perhaps they want to meet new people, learn or practice new skills, gain experience they can add to a resume, feel a sense of accomplishment outside of their job or home, or feel like a chorus insider. Inviting them to contribute will be a win-win for everyone, lightening the load for busy board members so they can focus on more strategic issues.
Solution #2: Design your board meetings to focus on matters of consequence.
Many board meetings consist largely of reports—from top staff, from the treasurer, from the board chair and committee chairs—covering activities that have already taken place. Instead, insist that all reports be sent out and read prior to the meeting, leaving room during the meeting for rich conversations about strategic priorities and the long-term health of your chorus.
If you find board members aren’t reading the materials ahead of time, you can help foster a culture of accountability that encourages preparation. One group gave a little quiz at the beginning of each meeting, asking people to answer questions based on what they’d read. Another group that usually served wine at meetings withheld each person’s drink until they could prove they’d read the reports. Some report authors have buried funny or alarming things in their reports to see who reacted. And one board member who was frustrated by others not taking responsibility simply said, “I feel betrayed by my fellow leaders when I spend time preparing for these meetings and others don’t. I thought we were all in this together. Can we make a renewed effort to come prepared to lead, not just listen?”
It could be that the reason people aren’t absorbing the pre-meeting materials is that they are boring and less than relevant to the full board. What if each report followed a format that triaged the most important (need to know) information in the first few lines, and used the rest of the report to offer the back-story and details (nice to know)? What if each report tied its work to strategic goals, rather than offering a litany of everything done since the last meeting? And what if the writer of the report clarified up front what action they need from the board based on that information? You can find a template for a more engaging report at susanhowlett.com.
Online Resources to Strengthen Your Board
Susan Howlett’s website shares more information about how to strengthen your board. Visit susanhowlett.com for information about her book Boards on Fire! and free resources including:
- Resources for planning board meetings
- Board committee report templates
- Examples of open-ended questions
- Videos on donor retention and donor engagement]
Build board meeting agendas around your strategic goals so they stay top of mind all year long and allow adequate time to discuss meaty topics that will help you achieve those goals. Have the appropriate committee or task force frame a question that will contain the conversation so it doesn’t go off the rails. And send helpful information, such as the pros and cons concerning a proposed next step, in advance so people arrive prepared for a robust discussion. Encourage the board chair to invite everyone to participate, especially the quiet people who don’t usually speak up, and ask those who usually chime in first to pause before speaking to make space for others.
If you shape your board meetings so that they’re forward-looking and big picture-oriented, you’ll find your leaders energized by the meetings and eager to focus on strategic governance.
You might also want to devote 15 minutes of every board meeting to practicing the skills that board members need to be good at: how to discern what’s important about your financial statements, how to write a great donor thank you note, how to engage with others as they represent your chorus at events or in public, or how to articulate your impact, not just what you do. Investing in your leaders each time they gather will also keep them energized.
How to Equip Board Members to be More Powerful Ambassadors
Problem You’re Likely Facing: Board members know they’re supposed to be spreading the word about your organization’s mission and work, but
- They’ve already exhausted their own circles and don’t know who else to approach.
- They don’t know how to promote your work in a compelling way.
Solution #1: Focus board outreach efforts on particular constituencies.
Rather than assuming that the entire community could be prospective audience members, volunteers, or donors, prioritize two or three types of groups and assign board members to reach out to them. Here are some ideas to stir your imagination about groups to prioritize:
- People who used to be on your board or in your chorus
- Former sponsors or donors
- Choir directors, choir members, and congregants of specific churches and places of worship
- Community orchestras that might have shared interests with your chorus
- Nearby retirement communities—especially those with their own buses
- Organizations that serve people of color (think of sororities and fraternities, like those in the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, or affinity groups at particular employers, like Blacks at Microsoft)
- Professional associations (think of associations for music educators, special education teachers, school principals, musicians or composers, or mental health counselors)
- Service clubs (like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Links, Soroptimists, or Junior League)
- Fraternal organizations (like Eagles, Elks, Oddfellows, Eastern Star, or Masons)
- People who sang in a chorus when they were younger but don’t now
Tell board members they can offer discounted or comp tickets to entice people from these groups to attend a performance for the first time, and station someone at the entrance to your concerts to greet newcomers. Consider hosting a brief gathering for groups of newcomers after a concert so that they feel welcomed.
Solution #2: Prepare your board members so they feel equipped to initiate conversations with people about your organization.
Have board members list the places they find themselves during the week so they can see how they might run into folks while watching their kids play soccer, or at coffee hour at their synagogue, or at a regular meeting of their service club, book club, or affinity group. Then, rather than thinking in terms of convincing people to attend a program, show them how to ask open-ended questions that engage the other person in conversation. Open-ended questions don’t have yes or no answers, so brainstorm questions together that will help them discern someone’s interest in learning more. “What was your first concert (of any kind)?” or “Who turned you on to music?” are good starting points.
Make sure to practice asking these and then following up with another question after the other person responds. This is a muscle we’re not used to flexing, and we all need to get better at it!
Also, focus your board on articulating what impact your chorus makes, not on what you do. This is another area where we’re not particularly adroit, so spend some time at a board meeting figuring out how to share what difference you make for end-users, whether that’s your singers, your audience members, or others in your community. You may want to offer questionnaires to your singers or exit surveys to your audience members to discover how they describe your impact.
If we equip our board members with clearly identified stakeholders to approach and help them get comfortable engaging new people in conversations about your work, they’re more likely to succeed at this critical aspect of their role and champion your organization wherever they go.
How to Engender More Effective Fundraising
Problem You’re Likely Facing: Board members know they’re supposed to help garner financial support for your chorus, but
- They’ve asked all their friends to donate and they don’t know anyone with money.
- They equate “fundraising” with “asking for money”, which they don’t like to do.
Solution #1: Show board members that the most effective thing they can do to generate revenue is to keep the donors you’ve already got.
Donor retention across the nonprofit sector is very low, and the reason is benign neglect. Adopt this fundraising strategy: “Don’t lose anybody!” If board members pay more attention to the donors who have supported you in the past, they’ll be doing their job.
In priority order, they should shower love on anyone who gave you money during the last year, anyone who volunteered, and the people who attended your programs. If they have bandwidth after that, they should focus on people who gave in the recent past but not last year, former board, former staff, and former volunteers. A special focus on donors who’ve just given for the first time will result in the highest return on their investment of time and energy.
If board members have a plan for attending to these core constituents and spend their time deepening people’s sense of connection with the chorus, you’ll see increases in loyalty and generosity and those very people will bring in new audience members and new donors because they’re having such a great experience. So what does such a plan look like?
Solution #2: Create a fundraising plan that focuses board members on stewardship, not asking for support.
If we focus our leaders on raising money, they might burn bridges on their way to meeting a goal. But if we focus them on connecting key stakeholders to our work, we will end up with devoted fans and money!
Research tells us what people are longing for when they support a nonprofit, and the same research tells us that they’re not getting what they yearn for when they give. So create a plan for board members to deliver what donors want, and money will show up, regardless of the mechanisms you offer for giving.
Donors want to feel seen and heard and known and valued by the organizations they support. They want us to acknowledge that they’ve been coming to our concerts for years, or that they’ve volunteered or made in-kind gifts of goods or services, or that they’ve contributed money on top of their ticket purchases for years. They want opportunities to share their own stories of how our music has affected them and why they care about us. So create opportunities for board members to share gratitude through phone calls, handwritten cards, or at in-person events like post-concert receptions.
Donors want to know that their support has made a difference, touched someone, or changed something. So enlist board members to share stories of impact about your singers, your audience members, people you’ve sung for in the community—even your sponsors and other donors! The most compelling stories are about one person at a time, not groups of people, and donors don’t need to hear grandiose results. Hearing that someone felt a sense of belonging is powerful. Or that someone who wasn’t sure about their singing now feels confident. Or that someone in your audience savored hearing live music in community again after feeling isolated.
Donors want to feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. And board members can create that by inviting people into authentic experiences of your mission. Invite a donor to attend a rehearsal and stand in the middle of the singers, completely surrounded by the music. See how the conductor elicits certain reactions from the performers. Board members could invite donors to attend a conference call or Zoom call with the chorus’s music director or other top staff, during which they’d get insider information about the next season. Leaders could ask donors for quotes or stories about why they give, to be used in your program or social media. Or invite donors to be part of a task force or survey or private conversation in someone’s living room over a glass of wine. Being included in special moments helps donors feel like they’re partners in the life of the chorus.
If we invite our board members to prioritize relationship building over asking, and to prioritize the people we’ve already got over getting new people, our leaders will feel safer and more comfortable with the process of generating revenue—and they may not even have to ask! People who’ve been thanked and included will give more whenever they’re asked, whether it’s through mail, email, an event, or additions to their tickets. And your board members will be happier too.
Your board members want to be an asset to your organization, but they need to be focused on the right conversations, the right people, and the right opportunities. Hopefully these suggestions, which don’t cost any money, and don’t take much time, will give you direction as you work to strengthen your board.
Susan Howlett has been strengthening nonprofit boards for over 45 years, as a trustee, an executive director, and a consultant to thousands of organizations large