Andy Robinson

Recently I had coffee with Andy Robinson, who has been training boards for over 35 years.

I got the chance to ask Andy, board trainer extraordinaire of TrainYourBoard.com, my most burning questions about board training. SO of course, I asked him to solve my problems-and asked him how I could be unconsciously holding myself back as a trainer.

If you’ve ever had to train a board, (or want to train boards in the future) you definitely want to read this interview.

Mazarine Treyz: What is the #1 mistake that most board trainers make?

Andy Robinson: They talk too much. The best trainers give the group work to do — exercises, activities, problem-solving, role plays — and then gently get out of the way.

Here’s the most important thing to know about adult learning: people remember about 20% of what the trainer says, but they remember 90% of what they DO. So give them stuff to do.

Be Quiet Trainers

Mazarine: Recently I was asked to do a board training for a nonprofit that helps small businesses. The issue was that the people on the board were all part of other boards and did not see fundraising for this org as a priority. They said, “You get City money that covers your budget! We need to fundraise for our other boards!” I taught them what I could about fundraising but I don’t think some of them will follow through. What would you have said to these board members?

Andy: Three points:

1. As trainers and fundraising leaders, we need to redefine the word “fundraising.” It’s not about money, it’s about relationships. The vast majority of the work happens before and after the ask. People will find any excuse to avoid asking, but if we define the word more broadly, it’s much less scary for people to participate. For example, I am a great believer in board members and other volunteers making thank-you calls to donors. Not scary, super effective.

2. When people join a board, the reciprocal fundraising responsibilities must be clear. Yes, the board is responsible for helping with fundraising — defined broadly (above) so people can choose from a variety of activities. The organization, in turn, is responsible for training and supporting them in that effort. These roles need to explicit from the start.

3. For those who are cultivating and/or soliciting donors, I encourage them to practice the menu pitch: “Martha, I’m serving on three boards. I want to tell you briefly about all three groups, and then you can tell me which of the three you’re most interested in. ” The nice thing about this approach is that it assumes a yes: the assumption is that the donor will pick at least one.

funny menu

Mazarine: What can you do when board members are mandated to be on a board and you can’t kick them off, even if they don’t do any fundraising, ambassadoring or outreach?

This is a challenging one. I tend to lean on an earlier answer about redefining fundraising — “Will you write thank you notes? We’re hosting a house party…can you drive a few people who need rides? Can you help us collect good stories about the impact of our work? Would you write something for our newsletter?”

I’ve been training lawyers to raise money (not a punchline) for their local bar foundations, which provide grants for legal services for the poor, immigrants, domestic violence victims, etc. One judge said at the training, “I can’t ask for money given my position, but I can be in the room when somebody else is asking for money.” Other judges may disagree, but I loved his attitude.

Finally, consider making it competitive. For example, create organizational business cards for all board members (put the mission statement or a few descriptive bullets on the back). Give each trustee 50 cards and say, “The first board member who gives away all their cards gets dinner for two, on us, at your favorite restaurant.” Even the resistant board members might jump in with the right incentive.


Mazarine: How can you find good board members? What’s a way to get the BEST people on your board?

Andy: First, figure out what gaps you’re trying to fill on the board. You can work with a standard board matrix — lawyer, accountant, rich person — but I don’t find those very helpful. It’s better for current board and senior staff to identify specific qualities, skills, and representation they want on the board.

Once you’ve identified the gaps, start recruiting from people who’ve already shown commitment to the organization: your donors and volunteers. Use committees and other tools to bring volunteers in and move them up. Get to know — personally — your most generous and loyal donors. I’m amazed at how many nonprofits recruit complete strangers, who have no experience with the organization, and parachute them into leadership positions.


Mazarine: How can you help staff follow up with boards after your training, to help them be ambassadors?

Andy: When training mixed groups of staff and board, I sometimes sort them into separate rooms, give them flip charts and markers, and have them brainstorm what they expect from the other group around fundraising: staff expectations of board, and board expectations of staff. Then I bring the groups together to compare notes. Sometimes these align. Often they don’t, which spurs conversation. Are these expectations realistic?

The answer to your question should be pretty well addressed in “Board expectations of staff.”

If we have enough people, I sometimes organize a third break-out group: What the board expects of itself regarding fundraising. I hope one of those expectations is peer accountability. In the best possible world, it’s the work of of board leaders to follow up with their peers, rather than relying exclusively on staff.

Mazarine: How can you help a board member leave gracefully?

Andy: Another great question! Two responses:

1. Term limits. Mandatory turnover. Put it in the bylaws. If someone is irreplaceable, she or he can continue to be involved, but not as a member of the governing board. Hell, after a year or two, you can invite her back on the board.

2. An emeritus or honorary or advisory board, where honored board members go. Give them a project or two, but not governance. To make this work, the advisory board has to be perceived as a place of honor, rather than time-out for the troublemakers. Start by populating it by well-loved, well-respected trustees who are ready to step away.

Mazarine: Thank you so much Andy! If you’d like to learn more about how to train your board, check out Andy Robinson and Andrea Kihlstedt’s website, TrainYourBoard.com.

Andy Robinson Board TrainerMore about Andy Robinson:

For 35 years, I’ve worked with a variety of nonprofits as a fundraiser, facilitator, trainer and community organizer. Since starting my consulting practice in 1995, I’ve provided support and training to thousands of nonprofit staff and volunteer leaders in 47 U.S. states and across Canada.

I specialize in the needs of organizations working for human rights, social justice, artistic expression, environmental conservation, and community development.

My books include Grassroots Grants and Selling Social Change, available from Jossey-Bass. How to Raise $500 to $5000 From Almost Anyone, Great Boards for Small Groups, and The Board Member’s Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances (with Nancy Wasserman), were published by Emerson & Church.