Transitioning to a Community Board

As nonprofits evolve, what they need from their board members shifts. Some choruses reach a point where they consider bringing in people from the community to augment their own internal leaders. If you’re thinking about that, here are some factors to consider.

Early in an organization’s life, the leaders do everything necessary to run the organization. As groups mature, leaders often sense a need to bring on staff. Board members may continue to help with managing duties, but also step into more governing roles. And when an organization gets big enough to have staff for most of the management and administration, the work of the board becomes almost exclusively governance and fundraising. Because each individual brings unique competencies and leadership styles to service as a trustee, we need to understand what developmental stage our organization is in, and what our work in that stage calls our board to do.

When is it time to diversify?

You may wonder when it’s time to expand your board to include people who aren’t singers in your chorus. Choruses that have brought on leaders from outside say the decision to change is usually triggered by a pressing operational need.

  • Your group may be at that point in its evolution where it’s time to hire your first staff person but the current board members aren’t equipped or in a position to raise the kind of money a salaried post would require.
  • Your chorus may be poised for growth, but the organizational systems aren’t in place to support growth—systems like a more sophisticated communication strategy, database, grants management system, or accounting system.
  • Perhaps your current board is happy to manage all the logistics of rehearsals, performances, and marketing, but isn’t as eager to participate in fiscal oversight, governance, or fundraising.
  • Or maybe you have a new strategic plan with initiatives that require connections with new constituencies or skill sets your current leaders don’t have.

Choruses that have made the shift to include non-singers emphasize that it’s essential for everyone in the leadership to agree that it’s time and to have a plan for making it happen. That could be a long-range strategic plan or simply a transition plan that addresses organizational structures and systems necessary to ensure the chorus’s viability as you modify the leadership.

Reflecting on his board’s evolution, Jon Washburn, founder and longtime artistic and executive director of the Vancouver Chamber Choir, notes that identifying the chorus’s needs directly influenced board makeup. “Even though we started as a paid professional choir, our board of directors was all singers for the first couple years. At about year three, we started needing workers at concerts who were not required on stage. These front-of-house people became our first non-singer board members.”

The board of the Young Professionals Choral Collective (YPCC) in Cincinnati “transitioned from a group of people drinking wine in my living room to an official 501c3 with an interim president who had board experience,” says founder and artistic director KellyAnn Nelson. “We spent a year training our leaders what boards do before electing our first president and forming five committees.”

Clarifying Expectations

Each evolutionary stage of a board requires different skills, temperaments and leadership styles, as well as distinct sets of expectations. Before you can specify those expectations, you’ll need to be clear about your strategic goals, as they will drive what you’re looking for in new leaders. And you’ll need to review your current bylaws to see if they need altering to reflect your new reality.

Get specific about what you need. If you want leaders to help raise money, be clear whether you’re prioritizing grants, events, major gifts, bequests, or digital efforts. Each of those options points you to particular types of people with distinct competencies, experience, and psychographic profiles. Plans to expand your earned income from ticket sales or workshop registrations send your search in yet another direction.

Vancouver’s Jon Washburn observes that opening the board to non-choir members helped clarify the value of certain specialized roles. “Immediately we saw the further need of special skills on the board—treasurer, secretary, PR, and so forth. A major breakthrough for the board came as we needed more specialized fundraising to support the continued growth of artistic activities. The manager focused on grants and fees, but we needed someone experienced at the board level to direct our efforts with individual and corporate donations and sponsorships.”

If you’re on the lookout for leaders with financial backgrounds, know whether you want them to serve as treasurer or simply ask strategic questions about your financial health and sustainability at board meetings. The first role might require someone who’s proficient at bookkeeping or accounting, while the second might suggest a more seasoned individual with broad background in nonprofit finances and experience with many nonprofits. And by the way, don’t assume that just because someone has financial expertise, he or she is willing to be your treasurer. Candidates may want to participate in a way that doesn’t mirror what they do all day.

If you need new leaders to open doors to new constituencies, be sure your organization has specified which communities and why you want them, so you can discern which type of person from that stakeholder pool would be ideal for your board. Is it a particular age group or demographic you’re trying to attract, or people from a part of town you haven’t served well, or a service club or social club that could lead to financial support? Do you want younger people who can devote time to you because they’re unencumbered by mortgages and children and high-level jobs or older, more experienced people who could bring more resources to bear because they move in more influential circles?

Answering these questions will make it easier to tap just the right candidates. And when you approach potential candidates, you can be really clear and honest about what you’d like them to bring to the table. For example, if you want them to introduce their contacts from their Rotary Club to the chorus, you should tell them that during recruitment, so they’re not surprised down the road.

In your quest for potential leaders, make sure they bring multiple gifts to the table, not just one attribute. For example, try to find 1) a CPA 2) of color who 3) lives on the east side, who 4) attends that church with the acclaimed music program, and 5) belongs to the Rotary Club. A person’s workplace, or occupation, or ethnicity does not itself qualify him or her as a strong candidate. And people want to be seen for more than one characteristic. 

Where will we find good candidates?

As you search for good candidates, look inside first. There may be amazing people among your own subscribers and donors. Extended family, friends, or professional colleagues of your singers might be eager to help, but no one’s ever asked. Describe what you’re looking for in your newsletter or concert program so internal stakeholders can self-identify. And arm your singers with job descriptions for board members and a list of characteristics you’re looking for so they can promote the openings through their own social media.

Then explore professional associations for the fields you’ve prioritized. There are associations for lawyers, CPAs, marketing or IT professionals, and fundraisers. Consider academics who teach in your field, whether privately, in schools, colleges, or universities, and people who work with musicians for a living (like attorneys or marketing folks, and funders in the arts). People like that (such as music educators) often belong to associations who could help you find new leaders.

Ask organizations with similar missions or audiences if good people are rolling off their boards because their term is up. Searching for the Vancouver Chamber Choir’s first experienced fundraiser, Washburn had coffee with someone who had recently stepped down from the symphony board and asked for recommendations. “He could think of no one,” Washburn recalls, but he himself “offered to help us ‘a little’ to get us moving in the right direction. He spent the next seven or eight years helping us make the important asks and attracting other like-minded volunteers to our expanding board.”

Consider checking with retiree groups from big employers such as your local phone company, manufacturer, or software firm to see if some members are interested in leadership opportunities. And reach out to the instructors of local college or university classes in arts management, nonprofit management, fundraising, or marketing to see if recent students, now highly trained, might be looking for experience.

Many United Way affiliates offer training programs to prepare people to serve on nonprofit boards, and some specialize in training people of color, since so many nonprofits are trying to diversify their boards. Check with your local chamber of commerce to see if it sponsors a program that readies people for leadership. They’re often named “Leadership (name of your town).” Both resources can publicize what you’re searching for and help you find a suitable match.

Approach current or recent sponsors to see if they have employees with the competencies you’re interested in. Sometimes major employers seek board roles for their younger staff because it makes the company look like a good corporate citizen, and they know that helping lead a nonprofit will make their employees more well-rounded. Let funders who’ve supported you know that you’re in the market for new leaders, since they want you to thrive and they may have good candidates in their own circles of influence.

Ease into the Change

If your board has always been exclusively singers, ease into the new construct slowly. Help internal leaders warm up to the idea by adding external people to committees or task forces for a while before you make the shift. That way, those who have “owned” the organization can grow to trust that non-singers can care as deeply as they do about the music and the health of the organization. They need proof that the new folks have value to offer and that they’ll be responsible stewards of the organization without dismissing how things have been done or changing things too much.

Allow current leaders who are tired, or who aren’t interested in the new roles, to move on with grace. As they cycle off the board, honor their contributions by acknowledging specifically the gifts they’ve brought, and how they’ve added value to the life of your chorus. Make sure they have a safe place to land, like a task force that uses their strengths or a new body you create, such as an emeritus or advisory board.

According to Washburn, the Vancouver Chamber Choir spent several years cultivating and recruiting the right non-singer board members, who now represent many socio-ethnic-economic facets of their community. In the process, the choir reserved a position on the board for a representative elected by the singers.

Several years ago, The Washington Chorus created a new chorus management committee to take care of ongoing duties (logistics, newsletter, music library, membership) that had previously been handled by the board, and invited singers leaving the board to transition into that body. An organization I’ve worked with put a retiring board member in charge of the organization’s archives, inviting her to collect and codify the chorus’s history, which no one had had time to do before. Another had board members who were rolling off plan and launch a group of alumni and former leaders who, once re-engaged, returned as volunteers and donors.

When it was time to recruit community members using a matrix of leader attributes, YPCC moved its working committees off the board, making space for singers who wanted to help but weren’t interested in the emerging board roles. Once the organization created a new strategic plan, it established four board task forces to attend to the four major areas of the plan. Nelson believes that “clarifying the work of those task forces made it easy for us to recruit a killer board that’s invested, working, and forward-thinking. Together they’re now on their way to tackling our ambitious multi-year plan.”

If some of your current leaders remain during the transition, acknowledge that the shift might be difficult. The sense of connection might dissipate, and inside jokes and references or familiar ways of doing things may have to fall away. People may feel defensive about old systems being disrupted, insisting that “we’ve always done it this way,” or “we tried that before.” Just keep reminding people why the change is happening, and to be especially kind in the process.

As you bring on new board members, keep your orientation from feeling like a firehose. We often cram too much information into orientation sessions, wanting new leaders to understand our history, our programs, our finances, bylaws, and expectations. But our orientations should inspire people, not overwhelm them. Focus the content on what board members need to know as governors and ambassadors, inviting their curiosity about other aspects of the organization. Then drip orientation content into every board meeting, because some of your current leaders may learn something in the process.

The best way to welcome new leaders, though, is to cultivate them over several months, inviting them to rehearsals and concerts, taking them to see your education programs in person, having them attend a board meeting as a guest, and asking them to serve on a committee or task force to get acquainted with your culture and rhythms, personalities and acronyms. Then they can land running without feeling like outsiders or imposters. Treat them as you would a major donor prospect and take your time wooing them.

Shift the Content of Meetings

As you diversify your board, the content of your board meetings will naturally shift. Your agendas should reflect your strategic goals and focus more on governance than management. One helpful way to distinguish between governance and management is to ask what kinds of conversations you’re having. Governance topics address why the organization exists and what—in broad brush terms—it does, while management topics address how. One organization I worked with taped small paper plates to sticks with the words “What” and “How” on either side, and when members felt the conversation veering away from governance, they could simply hold up the plate with the “How” side more visible.

If people can’t stop themselves from having conversations about logistics and committee work at board meetings, assign someone to capture the topics they wish to discuss and invite people to have those discussions immediately after the board meeting adjourns. Or have the practical conversations before the board meeting so you can address what’s on people’s minds and hearts before they get into the meatier leadership topics. Either way, insist on separating governance from management, and being disciplined about which conversations happen in what context.

As he closes his 48th (and last) year as head of the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Washburn confirms something he learned at a Chorus America conference many years ago: that “the nominating committee is the most crucial of all the committees of a nonprofit organization, for that is where you define who the actual owners of the organization are.”

As you consider including non-singer community members on your board, trust that the choruses who’ve gone before you have weathered the transition, and the new model has helped them grow and thrive. The best news is that the choristers who have moved on to other roles have found opportunities to participate and contribute in ways that make their hearts sing too.

Susan Howlett has been raising money joyfully for over 40 years, as a trustee, development director, executive director, and consultant to thousands of nonprofits nationwide.