Is Board Service Right For You?

Joining a nonprofit board is often represented as the ultimate way to serve an organization, but it isn’t always the best option for everyone. Here are some considerations:

Do you prefer working in teams or alone?
All good boards function as strong teams of people who get things done together. This involves plenty of meetings and robust discussion. Do you enjoy meetings or are you sick and tired of them? I have a friend who has no interest in going to any more meetings in his life. He just wants to get work done. He is a fantastic volunteer on work days at a nonprofit with me, and always willing to share insightful comments while we work. Everyone benefits in this situation.

Is your skill set something that lends itself to working alone?
Would you prefer to help organizations out by focusing on upgrading their technology, for example? You might want to volunteer to work with staff in that specific area, not by attending meetings to discuss the strategic direction of the organization.

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Skills of a Successful Executive Director

Becoming a strong executive director takes a wide range of skills. No one can be strong in every single area, of course, but you do need to have the basics down in each and know where you can improve. The skills listed below are all ones you can learn with practice.

When I first became an ED, I had a variety of skills from my previous nonprofit position, but there was a lot to learn. The biggest areas of growth for me were financial management, fundraising, and HR, as I came from an organization with whole teams for those tasks. Other skills I had already. I was passionate about the cause, and cared about helping others. I had written and managed grants of all kinds. I had managed staff, and programs. Especially in those first few years, I spent my time learning the areas that I wasn’t as strong in.

Below are a few of the broader skills to consider developing if you are interested in an ED role. The good news is that they are applicable across all sectors. All my ED knowledge was quite valuable in my later roles as an interim ED in very different types of nonprofits.

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Developing Great Board Chairs

The chair of a nonprofit board has significant power to shape the organization, but all too often, that chair is not prepared to lead. More often than we’d like to admit, the previous board chair needed to step down unexpectedly and someone without training reluctantly takes the position. In a recent study, over half the respondents reported they did nothing to prepare for their role as a board chair. The new board chair is frustrated, because they aren’t sure what to do. The executive director is frustrated, because they have an ineffective board chair. The rest of the board members start pulling back and don’t want to attend meetings. None of this helps the organization grow.

It’s unfortunate, since a great board chair has a real opportunity to make a positive difference for the organization. They can inspire their fellow board members to do their best and support the executive director tremendously. Board chairs need to have a wide range of skills, especially in working with others. They also need to have the time to focus on the board and the organization. The process to choose the next board chair should be deliberate, but it is too often made in a time of panic as the previous chair leaves.

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Creating a Leadership Development Plan

Good succession planning is about more than choosing a successor to the executive director. It needs to encompass planning for all leadership roles to strengthen the organization for the long term. A key component is leadership development planning, which provides a structured method to build leadership capacity.

As a young program manager at a social service agency, I was lucky to have many supervisors who were great mentors. They encouraged me and stretched my skills. They expected me to learn how to budget for my program, ask hard questions, supervise and mentor staff, communicate clearly, and develop partnerships in the community. They supported me in learning these skills by stretching my thinking and giving me opportunities to take on higher level tasks. When I left that role to become an ED of a nonprofit, those leadership skills helped me tremendously, although I still had plenty to learn.

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Crafting an Operating Manual for Your Organization

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

As your organization grows, you will develop the best ways to carry out certain tasks. Sometimes these are best practices in a nonprofit, other times they are simply the way your bookkeeper or funder wants you to do things. The more of these procedures you develop, the more important it is to document them.

In addition, as your organization grows, more staff will be taking care of different duties, and no one person will know how to do everything. It’s important for everyone to document their work.

This documentation has a wide range of uses. First, if you take a vacation, it makes it much easier for others to cover for you. Imagine how much easier it would be to prepare to leave for a two-week trip if you have all your day-to-day tasks already documented. Second, if you do leave your position, it will be much easier to hand things off, and know that the organization will be in good hands moving forward. Third, documenting this information will allow you to see where you can delegate tasks. If you can train someone on a task now, why not have them take it on permanently? Finally, having this documentation will help you be more efficient. In creating the manual, you’ll be able to think through your regular tasks and find ways to do your job more efficiently and effectively. You’ll also have all the information you need documented in one place. For example, you’ll have instructions on how to fill out that complicated form you have to fill out only once a year.

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Successful Transitions – a program that works

The possibility of a long-term trusted and high performing executive director leaving their position is a scary prospect for most boards. It can be made more manageable by intentional planning and open discussions. In addition, taking the time to explore succession planning and leadership development now will benefit the organization immediately through reduced workloads, better-trained staff, and the opportunity for future growth.

Through a new program called Successful Transitions, Lincoln organizations developed their plans and prepared for the future. The first Successful Transitions cohort consisted of six nonprofit organizations. One has an executive director who had a firm retirement date less than a year away. Two others have founding executive directors considering retirement someday in the future, but knew they needed to put plans in place for a smooth transition. The other three have no departure plans but understood that succession planning would benefit the entire organization now and in the future. There was also a wide range of organization size (staff sizes between 1 and 75) and executive director tenure (2 to 40+ years).

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Change is Hard

Change is Hard! How to Make It Easier for Everyone

We all deal with changes in different ways. What significantly affects one person is no big deal to another. The same event has various impacts on different people. For example, someone leaving a job will be thrilled at the new opportunities coming, while a co-worker is devastated to lose a fantastic colleague. At an organization with a new executive director starting, one of her program managers could be excited at the chance to work with someone new, while another manager is afraid of someone coming in and demanding to run programs in a new way.

Change is especially evident when an executive director leaves their position. This transition will affect everyone’s work load and level of comfort, but often people expect that a change is affecting others the same way as it does them. I often see this when a board has known about an upcoming departure for a month or longer, and staff don’t. When the staff are told, board members expect them to be ready to move on to the next step right away, forgetting that they also needed time to process this change.

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Steps of an Executive Director Search

For many small nonprofit boards, hiring a search firm to find their next executive director simply isn’t an option financially. Organizations can do the search themselves, but should involve people in the process who have experience in searches, and to follow best practices. What follows is an overview of the process that will result in the best possible hire on a budget.

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The Art of Gathering – book review

The Art of Gathering

How We Meet and Why It Matters

By Priya Parker

After reading this excellent book, I understand much better why some gatherings work, and some don’t. Why a too large room changes the atmosphere of a meeting. Why just allowing people to wander off at the end of a three day retreat feels like such a let down. Whether you are organizing a small get together of friends, or a large conference, this book will help you connect people with each other better.

Priya Parker has organized her share of gatherings and has many lessons to share. She starts by having you think about the true purpose of your gathering. Why do you want to have a birthday party? How can a networking event be more than just that? Can people be encouraged to ask for help with a vexing problem? Have a defined outcome, not just an event because you feel you should have an event.

She then walks through each step of the event. Who you invite to your meeting matters. It is OK to keep the guest list limited, because more people doesn’t necessarily make the gathering better. Think about the location and how it is set up. How can you make a contained space for your gathering? Even a picnic blanket sets a boundary. Net, she talks through being a host and how to have gentle control over the group. You aren’t bossing them around, but you are setting ground rules to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable time. Parker includes much more on creating a good gathering from the opening to the closing.

I’ve certainly been to my share of gatherings where there was no official start or end, and you were left wondering what you should do. At one event I was at recently, the organizers got on the microphone to yell at guests who went back for seconds and tell them they couldn’t do that. It isn’t an event I would return to! On the other hand, at a wedding I attended, the family got most of the guests involved in a fun and easy group dance that connected the broad group of friends and relatives with each other and got everyone up and moving.

I’ll be using techniques from the book to create better gatherings in the future. I highly encourage you to read it yourself. It’s available at Lincoln City Libraries and many other locations.