The Junior Board – A Great Vehicle for Developing and Recruiting Board Members

Last month I was invited to provide a training experience focused on strategic planning for the Junior Board Members of Bucks County’s Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA). While I was teaching, I was also learning about this excellent vehicle for developing potential nonprofit board members. Each year, NOVA recruits 10-12 people to its Junior Board for a one year experience. What happens next is a Win-Win-Win.

Win #1: Junior board members receive training at their monthly meetings on a range of topics essential for board performance, from budgeting to fundraising to strategic planning and more.

Win #2: NOVA receives the service of these individuals on several volunteer activities, including an annual fundraising event that is planned and executed by the Junior Board. And NOVA gets to see these individuals in action and has “first dibs” on recruiting them to the NOVA Board if there is mutual interest.

Win #3: Area nonprofits benefit as NOVA helps to connect its Junior Board graduates with organizations that match up with their passions. NOVA doesn’t have space for all of the year’s graduates, so others get the benefit of recruiting these young professionals that NOVA has helped to train.

Every nonprofit could benefit from pursuing a combined learning/recruiting strategy like this one.

What quiet leaders bring to nonprofit boards and organizations…

I’ve been enjoying “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. Though I am an introvert, the book isn’t for introverts alone.  There are some interesting reflections for nonprofit organizations considering questions of board/organizational leadership, board engagement, and board recruiting. Here are a few:

On Board/Organizational Leadership: Cain writes that some of the most effective leaders of organizations are introverts.  She quotes Jim Collins who said “We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies.  We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.” An introverted leader is more likely to listen to the ideas of others, making it more likely that good ideas will bubble up to improve the organization overall.

On Board Engagement: Groupthink is a major concern for boards that may realize there is little dissention or true discussion at board meetings. Cain cites research in support of this concern. She writes: “Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem. These early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe A is correct, too.” Cain suggests that we should find multiple ways to engage people and elicit ideas and information from them in settings where group dynamics don’t always rule.

On Board Recruitment: Cain’s research seems to suggest that nonprofit organizations should be sure to recruit introverted board members.  She writes: “Make the most of introverts’ strengths – these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems, and spot canaries in your coal mine.” So, while they may not be the most gregarious or likely to work the room at a fundraising event, there are many strategic advantages to having introverts on the board.


A Black Belt in Board Development: Ideas to Enhance Productivity and Engagement

One of the reasons I love to meet with nonprofit boards is the fruitful exchange of ideas that always leads to something new and valuable.  In a recent discussion with board members at the Laurel House board retreat, one such idea emerged.

We were talking about the value of including a time in the board meeting for members to share concerns about their processes and interactions. This is critical, particularly as recruiting and retaining board members often hinges on the experience that they have when in attendance at board meetings.  If we improve the board experience, we are more likely to keep good board members, and they are more likely to want to invite good people to join the board.

The challenge is to find time for these important insights.  Placing this discussion on the agenda at the end of a long meeting is sure to discourage board members from speaking out for fear of annoying their peers who are ready to go home.

A brand new member of the Laurel House board shared a solution from her work life.  She worked as a “black belt” for G.E. As such, it was her job to gather data and use it to drive good decision making.  (An awesome skill set for a nonprofit to have in a board member!) She recommends that the board have a flip chart and distribute Post-it® notes to members. During and after each meeting, they write up “plusses and deltas” – positive experiences (plusses) and areas for potential improvement (deltas)—on the Post-it notes and stick them to the flip chart on their way out of the meeting. The board chair or executive committee reviews them and tweaks the board processes accordingly.

I hope you’ll share your ideas for enhancing the productivity and engagement of your board members. E-mail me at

A Checklist for Your New Board Chair

If you have ever prepared to take the lead position on a nonprofit board, you know you really want some guidance.  Every bit of wisdom from your predecessor might be the bit that will help avert disaster.

As I was preparing for the Laurel House Board Retreat, board member Patricia Younce mentioned that she and her board co-chair had prepared a checklist to pass on to their successors. It’s a wonderfully practical tool created to pass along the knowledge they gathered, making the transition easier for the new board co-chairs and less likely that they would overlook key items.

These tools are even more valuable when their format can be progressively enhanced.  The next leaders can add to the checklist so it represents the collective knowledge of several generations of leaders.

I encourage every organization to begin this process of documenting key tasks, schedules and lessons learned for the next person in succession.

Send me your version of the checklist or other tools that your organization uses to make succession easier at  I’d love to learn from your experiences and effort.

It’s Not Who You Know

“There’s a lot of wealth in the area, but a lot of it is with younger people who have not come into the giving mode. They need education, and persuasion.”

This quote from H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest appeared in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday by Peter Dobrin, the Inquirer’s Culture Writer.  In the same article, fundraiser Eileen Heisman, president of the National Philanthropic Trust, comments, “We always have new generations of wealth, but you have to know where it is and figure out strategies to cultivate it, and that takes a lot of very creative work.”

The article has a lot to say about the new generation of donors, what they care about, whether they feel a sense of obligation to give, and what they may or may not be looking for in terms of involvement with the nonprofit organizations they choose to support.  These are all important things to consider.  But what really interests me is the article’s subtle emphasis on the important role of fundraisers. Not just professional fundraisers, but also volunteer fundraisers, i.e., board members.

Too often, board members assume that fundraising is about “who you know.”  If they don’t already have a relationship with someone who makes six figure gifts, they are inclined to think, and to say at board meetings, “I don’t know anyone with money.”  In reality, potential donors are all around us.  And fundraising is not a phone call.  It is a process – one that takes education, cultivation, creativity, and persuasion.

Fundraisers need to educate potential donors (everyone) about the mission and importance of the organization. We cannot assume they know about our good works.  We must talk about them.

Fundraisers need to cultivate relationships with potential donors. When I think of cultivation I think of gardening. You plant the seeds, fertilize, pull the weeds, protect the seedlings, stake up the young plants, and eventually, you get to enjoy the fruit of your labor. Similarly, the fundraising process takes time, care, and dedication.

Fundraisers need to be creative. They need to think about what kind of invitation will make a potential donor say yes, making that first connection to the organization. And once that connection has been made, they need to create a path along which that potential donor is likely to move toward greater engagement with and more giving to the nonprofit.

And fundraisers need to be persuasive. Fundraising is convincing and persuading for a cause.  How will the gift enhance the mission, leverage other donors, and bring value to the community?  What will convince this donor to make this gift on this day?

Fundraising is not mysterious. It is hard work that takes time, thought, and creativity. Everyone can do it.  And if you believe in the mission of your organization, it is well worth the effort.

What To Include In Board Self-Assessment

The Board performs many critical functions for the nonprofit organization, including fundraising, setting strategic direction, hiring and evaluating of the chief executive, and recruiting and training new board members.  One important responsibility of the board, sometimes overlooked, is to ensure that the board is functioning well.  A candid, annual self-assessment process can help the board to see and address its own weaknesses so that it can function more effectively in executing all of the important responsibilities listed above.

According to a BoardSource webinar, the following are characteristics of a good assessment process:

  • A confidential online survey
  • A third-party administrator
  • Only aggregated results are reported along with an interpretive memo providing a qualitative analysis of the results and benchmarking data
  • Results are discussed during a special meeting/retreat at the nonprofit’s location and action plans are developed
  • Results are tracked and compared from one annual assessment to the next
  • The board follows through to implement the action plans that came about as a result of the recommendations

Sample evaluation forms to assess the effectiveness of the board as a whole, the effectiveness of board meetings, and the effectiveness of board members (individual self-assessment) are available from BoardSource.  I also have assessment instruments that I have used successfully and am happy to share. If interested, please e-mail me at

Curious Boards?

Nancy Axelrod, a self-described “board anthropologist,” commented insightfully on the importance of creating a culture of inquiry on a nonprofit board of directors.  In her article, “Curious Boards,” published by BoardSource in 2010, she writes:

“If you’ve ever had your thinking challenged and been forced to defend or abandon your ideas, you know that this questioning, this sort of curiosity, can be uncomfortable. But a common ingredient of a high-functioning board is the presence of individual members who regularly turn to inquiry over advocacy, especially on matters that are not as clear-cut as other board business that can be tackled in a more perfunctory manner.”

Axelrod suggests the following steps that a board can take to build trust among its members to help them feel safe in expressing their diverging viewpoints:

  1. Provide social forums for individual board members to get to know each other and the chief executive.
  2. Make sure everyone has easy access to the organization’s documents.
  3. Make processes transparent.
  4. Permit individuals to express dissenting views, and, if necessary, coach them on doing it in a constructive way.
  5. Distribute leadership across the board.
  6. Do regular board self-assessments.
  7. Provide opportunities to share accomplishments as well as concerns with the chief executive through ongoing communications, annual performance assessments, and executive sessions.

Three Keys to Successful Board Recruiting

A recent post by Rick Moyers (Against the Grain) emphasizes the importance of recruiting the right people to be on nonprofit boards.  Moyers suggests that the lackluster performance of many nonprofit boards may have more to do with difficulty recruiting the right people than with a lack of board training or confusion over board roles (the typical scapegoats).

You can read Moyers’ post here:

I agree.  In fact, I think it is fair to say that many nonprofits feel hopeless about their ability to recruit and retain the strong and committed board members they require to succeed in their mission and, particularly, in fundraising. Their desperation leads them to think they should take anyone they can wrangle and be grateful for whatever limited time (let alone money) those individuals are willing to give.

I believe great board members are out there waiting to be asked to join the right board. But they have to be identified and approached by the right people in the proper way. Successful board recruiting, in my opinion, requires three things:

1. The right mindset. When we go into our recruiting activity with the idea that nobody is going to say yes to us, we virtually guarantee failure. Likely volunteers can smell our desperation. Instead, we need to remember how important our mission is and how valuable and important is the role of the board. We are providing an opportunity to lead. The right person will be honored to be approached and will look at us as carefully as we look at her when considering the right fit for our board.

2. Widespread outreach. We need to cast our net farther than those few families in our community who are approached for every leadership opportunity. There is a great pool of talent and wealth out there, and many people with a reason to care about our mission. Finding them is a networking challenge that is best accomplished by talking with a lot of people about the qualities and skills we are seeking for our board and what we will require of a board member.

3. A systematic approach. Keeping track of the connections made during the kind of networking envisioned above is a good way to identify potential board members and donors. Keep an active spreadsheet of contacts and what is learned through them. This information will be critical to evaluating and selecting the right board members and following up appropriately with all of the nonprofit’s new community connections — whether for future volunteer opportunities, donation requests, or to seek advice when a particular form of expertise is needed in the future.


Walk the Talk. Give Time, Give Money, Serve on a Nonprofit Board – Resolution #6

Until now, my list of resolutions fundraisers cannot break in 2012 has been filled with strategies for making change in your personal and professional life so that you can accomplish something great – your big hairy audacious goal. Self-transformation is at the heart of most resolutions, and it’s the challenge that makes keeping resolutions so difficult. But I don’t want this list to be all about self-transformation, for clearly there are important things in our organizations we should try to change as well. These are things that have the potential to make our fundraising programs stronger, contribute to our profession, and add value in the nonprofit sector.

Those of you who dislike any discussion of “self-transformation” may now breathe a sigh of relief.

Resolution #6 that fundraising professionals cannot break this year is to “Walk the talk” by giving time (as a volunteer), giving money (as a donor), and/or serving on a nonprofit board. I know it is difficult, when you live and breathe fundraising in your professional life, to consider adding volunteer activities like board service to your list of personal commitments. But there are many benefits to doing so.

First and foremost, there is mission benefit. A cause you personally care about will be advanced because of your time, your money, and your expertise. But, beyond that, there is a tremendous professional benefit that you and your organization will receive in the form of learning, growing, and relating to your donors, volunteers, and board members.

How much of your day do you spend complaining (verbally or just mentally) because you’re not getting the response you want and need from your donors, volunteers, and board members? Like when one or two board members won’t return your calls, and you can’t schedule an important group meeting until they do. You may think, “I would never behave like that.” And you may be right. But I find I am better at keeping these challenges in perspective when I’ve experienced it from the other side.

The Volunteer Perspective

Volunteers asking frequent questions can be annoying when your plate is full with many work-related commitments. But think back, if you can, to a time when you were a volunteer. You probably wanted to do a good job. You didn’t have much background, and maybe the instructions weren’t 100% clear. You probably thought it better to ask and do the job right than to assume and disappoint. Considering my own volunteer experience helps me think about ways to better prepare for volunteers. Whenever possible, I try to provide an example of the final product so my volunteers will know what the project they are working on is supposed to look like. I try to check in regularly to answer questions that come up so they don’t sit there feeling frustrated. And I make sure I tell my volunteers where the bathroom is.

The Board Perspective:

If you’ve ever served on a board, you know that receiving meeting information at the last minute is a serious problem. A good board member should read and prepare, and last minute information doesn’t leave time for it. Now, you may be thinking, “They never prepare for meetings anyway, so why bother.” And there are many board members who don’t prepare. But, I promise you, this issue feels different when you’re the one trying to fit board service into your life. I really detest taking my valuable time to attend a board meeting where I don’t know what’s on the agenda and where I’ll be asked to help make decisions that will affect the organization without having had time to appropriately consider the issue. Knowing how this feels contributes to the strength of my commitment to do it right. And your organization will be able to attract and retain stronger board members if you commit to following best practices like sending out agendas and background information at least one week in advance.

The Donor Perspective:

Donors often insist on a very narrow use of their donations, making it difficult for fundraisers who need to raise unrestricted dollars. We may understand this behavior better if we make a substantial gift ourselves. When it’s your hard earned money and you give it to a cause, what do you want to know about how it will be used? What would make you decide to trust the organization to decide where the money will do the most good? It is much easier to think like a donor if you are a donor. And when you think like a donor, you may be able to make changes within your organization that will inspire more people to give unrestricted money.

I believe that donors, volunteers, and board members can feel your sincerity and your empathy. This goes a long way to encouraging their desire to get involved, stay involved, and give more time and money. Volunteers and donors are not a means to an end. They are generous people with legitimate questions and concerns who mean well. When we understand their perspective better, we can tweak our organizations to make it easier for them to be involved, to give, and to be satisfied in helping us pursue our mission.

Supporting Boards to Succeed in Fundraising

On Sunday my family brought home a 10 week old puppy and one thing is very clear:  the training that is going on right now is as much (or more) about training us as it is about training the puppy. If we do the right things, it is much more likely that he will succeed. And success breeds (ahem!) success.

This makes me think of boards and fundraising. (No surprise to anyone.) I offer training programs to help board members to get comfortable with the fundraising process so they can engage in friend-raising and fundraising without awkwardness. But I’ve noticed that, to be effective, much of what I suggest requires effort on the part of the nonprofit staff.

A Chronicle of Philanthropy blog by Rick Moyers ( reinforces this point.  Rick references a new report called The Board Paradox issued by CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation. The report claims that the majority of nonprofit executive directors surveyed are spending less than 6% of their time supporting their boards. And those nonprofit leaders that spend comparatively more time working with their boards are also much happier with their board’s performance than those that spend less time.

To get the fundraising behavior we want from the board, here are five things the executive director and staff should do to support the board in fundraising. 

1. Before a special event where you’d like your board to help “work the room,” compile and share information about who is going to be in the room, specific individuals you’d like each board member to connect with, and talking points to help prepare board members to engage in successful conversations.

2. Provide a form to collect information learned by board members in event situations and give them an opportunity to debrief with staff at the end of the event. No question the staff members are exhausted and just want to go home, but it is much easier to find out all the valuable information board members learned in their interactions with donor prospects if you ask them right away.

3. Provide data about potential donors for board members to screen.  If you ask board members to name names of people they plan to introduce to the organization, more often than not you’ll get little or no response.  But if you can engage the board in a discussion about individuals they may know in the community — touching on what you know of them and how you think you may be able to open the door and get a visit, board members will want to help you problem solve these approaches.  In the process, they’ll get a sense of what you’re looking for and how prospects are likely to be approached and they’ll be much more likely to suggest additional names for the list.

4. Establish a process for following up with a board member who offers to help make a connection. Rather than waiting for them to call you with the results, call them to ask about their progress and offer assistance. Some concern or fear may be stopping them from making the call.  If we assume that they fully intend to follow through and routinely offer support and assistance, we are more likely to engender their success.

5. Offer to go along with board members on introductory visits with their peer connections. In my experience, board members often lack confidence that they can competently discuss the purpose and needs of the organization. But once they’ve been on a visit or two with the executive director, director of development, or another knowledgeable staff member,  they’ll know your spiel and feel much better about doing these visits on their own.

As Rick Moyers’ blog says, the “neglect and grumble” approach just doesn’t work.  More support from nonprofit leaders will enable board members to achieve more success in friend-raising and fundraising, helping you raise More Money for Mission.