When Board Members Don't Give....
Board members must make financial contributions to the organization.
I know that.
You know that.
Why don't board members know that?
"It's because the board itself has not come to grips with their fundamental purpose," stated Dr. James Powell, CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and author of the book Pathways to Leadership. "The fact is nonprofit institutions depend on philanthropy and without it most of us wouldn't make it very far. One of the key purposes of the board of trustees is to get, give or get off. Now that's probably too harsh for most people, but unfortunately many board member want to believe that they're on the board for their brain power, wit, wisdom, good looks or whatever. All of those are certainly useful, but if the board doesn't give, then who is going to give? Who is going to provide the philanthropy that the institution needs? So if you have a non-profit with a board that doesn't contribute as much as it should, you have a non-profit that doesn't come close to fulfilling its potential."
Nelson Cover, Jr., President of The Sheridan Group of Arlington, Virginia, a full-service consulting company, works with twenty to twenty-five charitable boards every year. He agrees that the concept of get, give or get off still applies to non-profit board members. "If anything, get, give or get off has been broadened to some degree. When you say give, not always in this day and age, does it mean just finances. With every board we deal with we have an orientation so people will understand their financial responsibilities. Increasingly boards are required to have a much broader degree of expertise represented so they can deal with all the business, financial, legal and programmatic issues facing the organization."
Why do so many charitable organizations have weak boards, or boards filled with deadwood and non-givers? To survive in a highly competitive marketplace non-profits need all the help they can get. Less than productive board members are a burden to the organization and a liability. Add to that reality the established fact that corporations direct a jaundiced eye at grant proposals that don't indicate 100 percent financial support from the governing body. Where have non-profit organizations gone wrong? William R. Conrad, Jr. and William E. Glenn writing in their book The Effective Voluntary Board of Directors (Swallow Press, 1983, Athens, Ohio), squarely places the initial blame on inefficient recruiting. They write: "It is a continuing source of amazement how much evasion and downright dishonesty take place at the recruitment interview when the candidate asks, "What for?" Those who want a candidate for his money will deny it. If the candidate is expected to raise money, it is revealed only after he says "yes." The amount of time involved is described as "just a few meetings." Those who want only the candidate's name will emphasize a function he can serve."
"The obvious question is: Why deceit - for that is what it is - when candor will better serve the candidate and the organization. Are we afraid to tell people what we are and that it takes work to be a good board member? Or is it that those who recruit are as ignorant of the truth as the candidate? Are staff executives afraid to "level?" Are they afraid of building strong boards? Regardless of any fears, recruiting must be, above all, honest."
John P. Mascotte, in an address to the Kansas City Association of Trusts and Foundations, stresses the importance of honesty and performance objectives for new board members. "I think it is perfectly fair, appropriate, and indeed necessary when recruiting or evaluating board members to have performance objectives. What are the specific duties you want each board member to participate in (fund raising, helping to manage the staff, and so forth)? How much time is going to be asked of a board member - all day, once a month, two luncheons a month? Do you intend to expect more from the chairman of committees in your not-for-profit than you do from other board members? I believe there are only a small number of people who are likely to be deeply committed to any cause. A not-for profit would be really successful if it can aggregate a small number of people who are so dedicated and so committed to the goals and objectives of the not-for-profit that they can take their bundle of particular talents and consistently energize the organization. Thus, it seems to me, that it is perfectly legitimate to test someone's commitment by saying, "We'd like you to become interested in this and we think that a good measure of your interest would be your willingness to commit X hours a month to do this particular kind of work." The great risk, of course, is that when you begin to establish standards and suggest performance objectives, a great many folks that you might ask to become board members are going to turn you down. They're going to say, "If it's going to mean that much commitment, I'd rather not." So be it! If there is a single point I'd like to make here, it is that not-for-profits traditionally waste too much time getting lukewarm consent in board memberships and then pay a heavy price for not having the kind of drive in those institutions that they really need in order to be successful. If the job isn't worth doing well, it isn't worth doing at all and you're much better off using the screening process that allows you to determine that up front. "
Any one who has ever recruited a board member knows it's a difficult task that takes finesse, honesty and persistence. However, many organizations, in their zeal of recruiting the "perfect" board member, will overtly or subtlety, provide concessions to the individual. In his book, Governing Boards, (1989 National Center for Nonprofit Boards, 1-800-883-6262) Cyril O. Houle, takes a dim view of that practice. "Some people want to accept, but only with certain conditions or restrictions. They ask to be excused in advance from raising money or coming to board meetings or taking on special assignments. Unless it is so crucial to have the particular person that there is virtually no other choice, such conditions should not be accepted. The selecting authority cannot exempt new boards members from their responsibilities; the agreement to do so becomes a false promise followed by inevitable resentment. But the reason for not accepting conditions goes deeper. The board is, after all, collectively and wholly responsible, its members cannot arbitrarily excuse themselves (and hence cannot excuse a colleague) from the exercise of their duty."
No matter how hard an organization works to select and recruit the right people for their board, it's inevitable that eventually there will be one or more persons who, for one reason or another, no longer actively supports the cause. No one interviewed for this article was willing to arbitrarily kick someone off the board for not giving or getting. However, all those interviewed agreed that some type of counseling is necessary to establish the individual's current interest or non-interest in the mission of the organization.
Nelson Cover, Jr. gave two examples of how he views the counseling and, if necessary, the dismissal process. "You fire a board member only occasionally and only very carefully. Consider the example of the long-serving board member who, because of age, or whatever reason, is having problems attending meetings and isn't really doing much for the organization. Very often in this day and age we create a Board Emeritus. This group is still important to the organization, still honored, and still brought in for regular briefings. It's very much catered to. The benefit of this type of a group is it allows you to keep these people within the fold and still get more active people involved in the board process."
"The second example is the board member who you just have problems relating to. What I see happening is serious conversations with the individual and if they don't go forward, then literally saying to them, this doesn't seem to be working and what would they suggest the best way of handling things. Asking their advice will often identify the problems, such as scheduling, time conflicts, or personal problems. Sensitivity is the name of the game here. It needs to be dealt with very, very personally."
If there is a potential solution to eliminating deadwood, strengthening boards and motivating them to give, it lies in the hard work and dedication of the organization's nominating committee. Nelson Cover, Jr. believes it's the most important committee on the board. "The nominating process and the examination of prospects for nomination, is a 365 day a year process. This committee needs to link arms with the development office, they need to link arms with key people on the board who are well networked, and they need to be working on a team approach for who needs to be on that board in the future. Forget who's on the board now, who can they get on the board in the future? Often times that's solved by asking, who do we want to get? Let's dream a little. Let's figure out how we can network and get those individuals involved. It's not an overnight process but it is a process that can dramatically change a board in a several year period."
Dr. Powell warned that it's sometimes desirable, if not palatable, to retain some deadwood on your board, if, after careful consideration, dismissal would cause more problems than solutions. "Every board has some deadwood. Some organizations try to take care of that by putting forth a mandatory retirement age such as 70. But one board that I served on, the two largest contributors were over 70 and the third was approaching 70. They were still in command of their faculties and it would have been foolish to kick them off. If you do force off an individual from the board, an individual who has given a lot in the past, even though they might not be able to today, you will incur a lot of ill-will and bad feelings. If you have two or three people who aren't cutting it, it may not be worth while to force them off the board."
Karen Crown, Executive Director of the Florida Blood Foundation, Inc. in Clearwater, Florida, agrees that counseling and discretion are necessary when deciding on whether or not to dismiss a board member. "We phase out poor performers rather than dismissing them. We're not a huge market like Chicago, New York or San Francisco, so people know other people in the same social circles. Word travels fast in this market and I don't feel dismissing an individual here would be good PR for the organization."
Dr. Powell explained how he would handle a board member who is less than productive and a potential candidate for dismissal. "One effective way is to wait until that person comes up for re-nomination. If you have terms, you wait until that person's term is almost up and it would be time for re-nomination. You would have the chairman of the board or the head of the nomination committee meet with this person and say, we notice that you haven't attended many meetings, we haven't seen a lot of you, you've had trouble making the minimum gift, are you sure you really want to be on this board? Usually at that point, if they don't want to continue serving, you'll find out about it. That is better than simply kicking someone off and then discovering later they had some family problem or financial problem or some other good reason that they had to slow down their activities for awhile, but they later intended to step it up again."
One area that all the professionals in this article agreed upon was the need for job descriptions for board members. "Job descriptions for board members are very important, " stated Nelson Cover, Jr. "There should also be a committee description for every committee, and they all tie into the strategic plan so that each committee is charged with accomplishing certain objectives put forward in the strategic plan. And that should be annualized. There should be a board meeting every year that says here's what we want to accomplish as the board, here's what each committee's role is in accomplishing these endeavors, here's how we tie them to the administration and here's where we cross the line. And here's how it all works, so everyone knows what their role is going to be, the meeting schedule and the job their supposed to do."
In the face of dwindling community support and fierce competition for philanthropic dollars, boards and board members have never been more important to the survival of charitable organizations. Generous, efficient, dynamic, and motivated boards are needed to guide our organizations into the troubled waters of the future. Mary Jane Crist, CFRE, Vice President of Development for Mercy Healthcare in Phoenix, summed up her feelings about how board members need to be treated to ensure success. "It's called using common sense. Board members are really no different than you. When you feel flattered that someone asked you to become involved in something, no matter how large or how small, just remember the people who are serving on your board are probably feeling exactly the same way. Sometimes we have a tendency to put board members up on a pedestal and think they already know things or that they expect things, and they really don't. They're just humans like everyone else. You need to treat board members not as though they're gods sitting there making decisions, but they're actively involved people who want to help. Continue to ask them to give and provide them opportunities to be involved. So many times we talk at board members, and we report to them, with staff doing all the things that are necessary to keep the organization going. We don't ask them to participate in the dialogue."
How long should a member stay on board?
This question must be a concern of every trustee. People often wonder whether they should continue to serve, sometimes being stimulated to consider the matter because a present term is nearing its end. In any such case, the member should ask himself certain simple but searching questions:
1. Do I continue to be strongly interested in the mission of the institution?
2. Am I providing effective support and assistance for the program?
3. Do I have confidence in the effectiveness of the board, the executive, and the staff?
4. Am I at least as well qualified to serve as anybody who might take my place?
5. Is my continuing membership likely to strengthen the caliber and unity of the board?
6. Is the service I am performing on this board at least as significant and as personally rewarding as any other service to which I might devote the same time?
(Governing Boards, Cyril O. Houle, 1989, National Center for Nonprofit Boards, 1-800-883-6262. Used by permission.)