Here’s the final part of our interview with Andy Robinson. With 35 years of experience training boards, he’s going to lay bare what he thinks about the typical misconceptions board members have about executive directors, and vice versa. He is going to be speaking about creating more effective board at the Nonprofit Leadership Summit on September 27-29, 2016.
MT: What do you wish more executive directors knew about engaging with their boards?
AR: The answer to that question for me is A, you want to know about why people are serving. Classic question is why did you say yes when we asked you to be on the board? Why is this organization meaningful to you? Then the second part of that, based on what you get and what you know about the board members, is try and customize as much as possible their experience as a board member.
So one way to think about this for the fundraisers listening to us is if you have groups of individual donors that you would consider major donors, the smart major donor people are always customizing based on what they know about their major donor. This person likes email. This person likes a phone call. This person wants to go to lunch. This person always wants to have their spouse present when we’re talking. This person would rather talk alone because their spouse has other philanthropic interests, etc. And I would treat a board member the same way. I try and know them as individuals and to the degree that you can serve them that way, try and serve them that way.
Now, the note to the executive directors, I just gave you a lot more work and I apologize for that. But if you want to have good relationships with your board so it’s not a “dealing with” relationship, you have to think of them as individuals and you have to engage them where they’re strong. You probably have to train them where they’re weak, and treat them – how do I say this? Treat them as their best selves and try to get them to treat you as your best self too, so it’s reciprocal.
MT: What do you wish more boards knew about engaging with executive directors?
AR: So what board members need to know about most executive directors is that they are overworked, and in most cases, underpaid, and they’re usually there out of love. Because they care about the mission. Nobody in this country that’s running an animal shelter that doesn’t care deeply about dogs, cats, birds, fish, and other animals in their care. They’re doing the work all day. They’re in the trenches. They’re embedded in it. So you need to understand that most of them are there for mission purposes, not necessarily for the money or the lifestyle or anything else. I think that requires great respect.
The implication there is you have to be careful, as board members, to have reasonable expectations of what your executive directors can do and can’t do. I just heard this story from a client the other day. The board showed up and said to the staff, we’ve just increased the budget for next year by X. I forget what the amount was, but it was a big number, without saying to the staff, is this reasonable? Can we make a plan for how we’re going to raise the additional money? What’s the strategy? Help us think together about a strategy. They just decided the organization needed to have a bigger budget and it was the staff’s job to go out and find the money.
AR: That’s, at one level, unrealistic, and I think at another level, disrespectful. So you want to be working in teams. There needs to be a partnership model here. What else can I say about executive directors? The other thing is, I am a great believer in term limits for board members. I think we need to have turnover on our boards, and I think a good term limit is probably somewhere between six and eight years and then you’ve got to cycle off. If you need to come back at some point, that’s fine. But I think we have to build that into our governance model, that we’re always sort of forced to bring new blood in. It’s worth noting that if people leave the board, they can still be involved in other ways. Somebody says I’m the historian, I have to be on the board forever. My response is, you can be the historian off the board. You don’t have to be on the governing board to do that.
MT: Just one more question. In your opinion, what is one thing that any nonprofit board member reading this could start doing better? Is there one thing that usually people could do better on the board?
AR: Great question. Can I give you two answers?
Answer number one is ask good questions and pay attention. Your job as a board member is you have oversight and fiduciary responsibility for the organization. You need to understand the business model, where the money comes from, where the money goes. You need to have basic understanding of how well the programs are functioning, what measurements you’re using to measure their impact. You’re in governance, so take that seriously and ask the questions you need to know to make good governance decisions.
The second thing I would say is get training. The classic example here is that you’re recruited to the board and you’re at your first board meeting, and they hand out a bunch of spreadsheets that are the organization’s financial statements and there are a lot of board members that have no clue how to read a financial statement. So they’re looking at the numbers and they’re trying to figure it out. Eventually you have to vote on something, and often they’re voting blind because they really don’t know what they’re looking at. I feel these days that once a year, perhaps, every board should have a 30 minute or one hour training led by the treasurer or maybe by an outside financial person just to talk the board members through the financial statement so they understand what the numbers mean.
Because at the end of the day, the buck stops at the board with it comes to the finances. We could expand that beyond finances. If you’re going to run a good meeting as the board chair, maybe you need training on how to run a good meeting. If we’re going to put together a job description for board members so we know what the expectations are, that may be the sort of thing where some outside training would be helpful. So take your board service seriously. Get trained to do it well.
MT: That is a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much, Andy. I really appreciate you taking the time for this conversation. If people want to get in touch with you, what’s a good way to get in touch with you?
AR: A couple ways. We mentioned earlier the book and the website and the blog, Train Your Board. So it’s www.trainyourboard.com. Please take a look there. We have e-news. We have a blog. If you want to sign up, we send out free training exercises and all sorts of stuff. The other thing is I have a website, which is www.andyrobinsononline.com. Check it out. A list of training topics. I’ve written six books. You can learn about the books there. You might see a picture of my garden. So yeah, I appreciate the chance to talk with you, Mazarine. I hope people find this useful, and I hope some of them will join us when we do the nonprofit leadership summit in the fall.
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.
Here’s part one of the interview 2 things that make your board members work harder for you, and
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