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INTERVIEW: How to make your board more effective- with Andy Robinson

19 July 2016

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 July 19, 2016
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Andy Robinson

Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and today I am so pleased to chat with Andy Robinson, who has authored many books of wonderful worth, including Selling Social Change. He is going to be speaking about creating more effective board at the Nonprofit Leadership Summit on September 27-29, 2016. So Andy, thank you so much for being here.

MT: Andy, how long have you been doing board trainings?

AR: Since the dawn of time. Twenty years now, maybe a little more. But at least twenty years.

MT: Why did you choose to start working with boards?

AR: Well, my background very briefly is I spent 15 years as staff at various nonprofits, primarily doing development work. I worked with boards that were effective, and I worked with boards that weren’t as a staff member. I have to say, I worked with some really terrific organizations that had mediocre boards. Life still goes on and the groups still did good work. But what I saw when the board was doing its work well, it was engaged and effective. It was like the little super charger on the fanny pack of the butt of the organization and pushed it higher and faster and further. So I think having an effective board is not essential, but I think it’s really helpful.

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MT: You really saw from the inside that people were more effective when the board was giving them a little fanny pack booster push?

AR: Yeah.  So I sometimes think of the board, at least the group board, as the backpack that you wear that shoots you up into space. So anyway, I spent 15 years as a staff person before I started my consulting and training practice. I’ve been doing that for 20 plus years. So a lot of what I train people or I consult with people on is the stuff that I learned in the trenches as nonprofit staff.

MT: What do you find enjoyable about training boards?

AR: I like training, teaching, facilitating. It feels to me like the work I’m supposed to be doing, and just working with groups and getting them to learn things, try things, work better together. That’s very satisfying and stimulating to me. I’ve trained boards. I’ve trained staff. I’ve trained volunteers. I’ve trained all manner of folks to do a variety of things. I don’t know that training boards, per se, is different than any other sort of training that I do. I will say that board members are volunteers. They’re serving out of the goodness of their hearts. In general, they’re not compensated with money. So you have to compensate them with attention, affection, support to do their jobs better, tools to do those jobs better. So many organizations, the board can be the heart of the organization. It can be where the mission is kept and nurtured, and a good board is a beautiful thing. When I get to work with one, it’s very satisfying.

MT: Wow, I’ve never really heard that expressed that way before. But you really have to compensate them with love and attention. I love that.

AR: Well, you know, our colleague Kim Klein, and those of you who don’t know. Kim is a wonderful fundraising author and trainer and consultant and has been a mentor to me. She tell this joke. She says, it never happened that the doctor came out of the birthing room and said to the expectant father, ‘It’s a boy and he’s a board member.’ We don’t come out of the womb as board members. It’s something you learn, and sadly a lot of people get onto boards and they’re not given orientation. They’re not given training. They’re not given tools to do their job, and we assume that people just sort of naturally pick this up. Being a board member is like any other skill set. It’s something you learn and you master with practice, and hopefully with good training.

MT: Right. So I mean, that’s one of the things that I think frustrates a lot of people in nonprofits. They ask why isn’t our board doing better? Well, maybe because you need to teach them to do better.

AR: Then the question is like, who is the we in that conversation? In the ideal world, the board is built to train itself or to recruit the resources it needs to train itself, and in a lot of organizations, the executive director or the leadership staff thinks it’s their job to train and support the board. I think to some degree that’s true.

But the ideal board has tools to train and support itself. You should have a committee called board development or board governance or board improvement, and the function of that committee is to help the board be a better board.

Your board improvement committee should do: 

  • Orientation
  • Nominations
  • Recruitment
  • Vetting potential candidates.
  • Regular training for the board.
  • Organize the annual retreat. 
  • But the function of this committee is also to be the vibe watchers, meaning they’re paying attention to the subtext of what’s going on and naming it.

I had a client once who said to me, all of the important conversations at our board meeting happen out in the parking lot after the board meeting. That is the definition of a dysfunctional board. So somebody needs to say that out loud and say to the board members, we’re not having the real conversation here. So let’s have the real conversation, which is X or Y as opposed to what we’re talking about. I feel like somebody within the board, some group of people within the board, has to be empowered to do all the things I just said. So you can call it whatever you want, but this is like the nominations committee on steroids. It’s not just finding new board members. It’s also helping them do their jobs effectively.

Join us for the Nonprofit Leadership Summit!

Go to Part Two, Get more out of your board meeting with this ONE idea.

Here’s Part three of our interview with Andy-2 exercises to do at your next board meeting to help your nonprofit grow. 

Here’s part four of our interview series: How to help every single board member fundraise for you.

Here’s part 5 of our interview series: Why your board is not motivated and what you can do about it.

If you’d like to learn more from Andy about how to build a better board, please join us at the Nonprofit Leadership Summit, September 27-29, 2016. All recordings will be available for every registrant. Learn more here.

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