How To manage a Board of Directors
Nominate people who really get what your organization is and want to be. A board meeting is no place to argue over identity. You have to have the right people in the room from the start, so choose wisely. Look for people who make you think and make you laugh. Look for people who you can imagine telling their friends about your work with as much enthusiasm as you yourself would have. It can be tempting to choose people who are locally famous or very wealthy, etc., but only choose them if they are also people with whom you like spending time—and whose decisions you trust. Being a good board member is such hard work and such good fun that you want to be sure you’re not wasting that magnificent opportunity on someone who isn’t quite right.
Once you’ve assembled your board, give them a good structure and expectations. That’s not to say everyone needs a heavy manual (often unwise for so many reasons). What every board needs—and a new board in particular—is a basic structure on which to base their work. For example, you’ll tell everyone: Board members are expected to give financially and to encourage their friends and other networks to support us as well. And: Board members should be present at 75% of all the monthly board meetings. You might also say: The Executive Director will send out a program and financial report one week before each meeting. Setting a few guidelines like these, which are reasonable and clear, means there won’t be any uncertainty about what’s expected and when and how to be a board member. If you’ve never told your board what you expect, it’s hard to express or act on disappointment later.
People always wonder if a so-called give/get guideline is important. Then they ask how much it should be. There are merits to having a guideline like this, including making expectations crystal clear and helping to expect certain income. There are drawbacks, too. If you ask everyone for the same amount, some valuable amazing people who are not able to give at that level will be left out, probably without even having a conversation with you because they’ve heard the message that you’re seeking someone of higher means. And any set amount starts to feel like a price of admission at some point. Likewise, you’ll surely encounter a board member giving at the guideline level when they’d be comfortable with and excited about giving three times that amount. I prefer to say, “Board members give at a level that’s meaningful to them, and we ask that their financial commitment to us is the same or larger as the gifts they make elsewhere.” This means it’s okay if a board member’s maximum ability to give is $250 annually, especially if they are contributing in other valuable ways. At the same time, it would be a little off if that $250-giving board member is also making $5,000 gifts to their alumni association. So have a frank conversation with each person on your board, exploring the needs of the organization, their ability to contribute, and how it fits into the larger whole.
Finally, to expand on the point above, it’s really important to think of your board members as eight (or seven or twelve or…) human individuals rather than “the board.” They don’t necessarily know each other (yet), and it’s not wise to lump them together for everything—though inevitably you will sometimes do that for good reason. Each person will have their own relationship with the organization, and will be put to best use—and feel most engaged and most generous and supportive—if the work they do with you is a reflection of their own needs and goals.