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Six Hot Spot Board Issues and Three Cooling Tactics

by Jamie Simek, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN on

Expectations are a two-way street (or maybe something more akin to a clover-leaf interstate exchange?).  During our session “Who’s Shoulding on Your Fundraising Efforts?” at the 2017 AASLH Annual Meeting, my colleagues and I hoped to address how expectations by both staff and board members can lead to challenges raising money: in other words, how the often-familiar “getting should on” hurts fundraising.

What we learned from our session attendees is that while some organizations have their board processes in the fast lane and can focus specifically on clarifying fundraising responsibilities and optimizing the board’s role in raising money, many other organizations are on a bumpier road, just trying to get their boards to function. And a board has to run before it can raise money.

Driving forward with the idea that “staff should do this” and “boards should do that,” participants identified two “hot spot” areas of contention: (1) their interpretations of what the board thinks they should do as staff and (2) what they, as staff, think boards should do.

Staff feel their boards expect them to:

  • Do more (and more and more…). Example shared included: Just ask for more money, get more corporate money, write more grants, have a gala, get more volunteers, get more interns, do more with less.
  • Handle all logistics. Examples:  Keep all records, handle all event/program logistics, remind board of agenda items, have all of the details for everything, be available all the time, act on the board’s plan.
  • Make the board function. Examples: Get a banker on the board, get “them” to do it, make other board members work harder/do their share, incorporate board whims and dreams into the plan.

Staff expect their boards to:

  • Participate. Examples: Go to meetings, be prepared for meetings, know the product (mission, vision, etc.), come see the product (exhibits, programs, events, etc.), work for the organization outside of meetings, advocate all the time, recruit new members, use personal social media to promote the organization, be evaluated.
  • Collaborate. Examples: Treat staff as professional partners, consider new ideas from staff, advocate for a shared vision, temper unrealistic expectations of staff, discuss and consider before making decisions, not micromanage.
  • Fundraise. Examples: Make some asks, make personal financial contributions, get us in the door with personal contacts, ask their friends to give money.

While some expectations are realistic and appropriate, others are less so. But whether true or not, these preconceived notions do exist, and for some organizations they create hot spot issues. To address this, we asked participants to brainstorm “cooling tactics.” We were struck by how concisely each of the participant groups’ tactics could be classified into one of three overarching actions: Educate, Communicate, and Plan.

Educate. Prepare boards to serve in a professional capacity. Include not only clear descriptions of expectations and duties (including those for fundraising), but also information about industry standards and best practices. Help board members understand your processes, and provide fundraising training if needed.

Tactics:

  • Develop and deliver a board orientation/on-boarding process. Include a history of the organization, as well as clear expectations of board member service (including personal financial contributions, role in fundraising, meeting attendance, committee work, etc.).
  • Help board members understand ethics and best practices (of nonprofits in general but also of museums, collections care, etc.).
  • Ensure bylaws are explicit and clear. Make sure roles of the board and of individual officers are accurately described. Revisit and amend by-laws on a regular basis.
  • Develop and execute a process for regular board self-evaluations.

Communicate. Go into conversations with a collaborative, honest approach. Encourage board members to be advocates for your organization. Help them be good spokespeople by coaching them to communicate your value proposition thoroughly and consistently, so that everyone is delivering roughly the same message.

Tactics:

  • Be honest when discussing requests to do more with less (explain what “more” looks like in terms of organizational operations, including the relationship between staff time and deliverables).
  • Encourage the board to become involved in aspects of the organization that are of most interest to them to encourage buy-in for those areas.
  • Give specific feedback and ask for it in return.
  • Ensure that committee members and staff liaisons communicate openly and frequently with the director and board president as appropriate.

Plan. In order to be effective, organizations must clearly identify the desired outcomes and put strategies in place to meet those ends. This is true in all aspects of operations, and especially in fundraising, which must be a deliberate, strategic process in order to have long-term effectiveness.

Tactics:

  • Make strategic planning part of the institutional culture. Integrate it into the organization’s processes. If formal strategic planning is more than your organization can handle right now, be deliberate in planning strategically.
  • Create a board member nominating process with diversity and inclusion as a priority. This helps ensure a variety of perspectives and expertise.
  • Use data to inform decisions. Develop fundraising strategy based on future plans, current needs and past success. Pull data and track trends from your donor database to identify the best prospects, cultivation strategies and even appeal methods.
  • Clearly identify board member and staff roles in fundraising. Define processes and designate who will serve as the fundraising lead to initiate cultivation techniques and coordinate asks. If your organization does not have a director to implement the fundraising plan, create a board development committee with a chair to spearhead the effort.

Whether your organization is specifically working to improve fundraising, or your goal right now is to enhance overall board function, a commitment to education, communication and planning can help recalibrate expectations between staff and board members and put your organization on the road to success!

A special thanks to those who participated in our conference session and shared their ideas!

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