How You Can Build Strong Relationships with Your Nonprofit Board

9 Ways to Build Stronger Relationships with Your Board

by goldenburggroup

9 Ways to Build Stronger Relationships with Your Board

by goldenburggroup

by goldenburggroup

As an executive director, you have many important relationships.

And your most important are often with your board members. They not only make up the governing body that supervises you, but they are one of your most important resources in the community. Board members represent your organization every day – at work, on social media, in civic organizations and houses of worship.

So how do you develop and maintain these important relationships?

No surprises!

I didn’t understand this important principle as a first-time nonprofit executive director. At one of my first board meetings, I asked all board members to recruit ten new members without floating the idea among board leadership first. In the best of circumstances, this would have been a serious gaffe. But representatives of the local media attended our board meetings. I put my board members in an awkward spot because the public meeting prevented conversation or debate.

Thankfully, I had board co-chairs who provided me some mentoring and support. They helped me understand that the public request was inappropriate without pre-meeting conversations with board members. They also offered to partner with me to ensure that all board members had the resources necessary to meet this very public goal. 

This taught me the importance of “no surprises” with individual board members. I put this lesson into practice in two ways. The first is by working with board leadership to roll-out ideas. The second is by building strong relationships with individual board members. This is not an either/or option. It takes both steps to develop and maintain strong relationships with your board members.

So with “no surprises” as the foundation to build better board relationships, here are 8 more tactics to build stronger board relationships:

      1. Reply within one business day.

 This is the bare minimum a board member should expect. Yet so many board members have shared horror stories of chief executives taking days or even weeks to respond to emails, voice mails or texts. 

This doesn’t mean that you have to be available 24/7. It’s okay to manage expectations about responsiveness on evenings, weekends and vacations. But it should only take one working day to get back in touch once you are available again.

      1. Communicate in ways that are effective for your board members. 

I have a strong preference for phone and video conferences, and this has been ideal for some board members. But I’ve also worked with board members who preferred text, email and even Facebook message. While I’ve found texting to be both insufficient and emotionally draining, I will use it for those board members who prefer it. 

      1. Never let a month go by without touching base.

Never let a month pass without some personal communication with each board member. This is one of the toughest rules for nonprofit chief executives because our work lives can get so busy. But board members we only speak to at board and committee meetings are often far more disengaged.

      1. Engage them in a meaningful way.

Use individual communications to engage board members in ways that are meaningful to them. If a board member is a marketing expert, ask for their advice on your branding project. If a board member is passionate about your disabilities program, ask them to speak at the program graduation. Check out this article for more ideas to tailor your board members’ engagement. Doing this will help your board members will feel closer to you and to your organization.

      1. Recognize career and life milestones.

In my own life, I remember the friends and colleagues who send me birthday cards, attended my parents’ funerals, celebrated my wedding, and cheered me on at career transitions. It’s human nature to remember those who were there for us during our highest moments of success and deepest periods of grief. Recognizing career and life milestones doesn’t have to be burdensome or over the top. You can mail cards to recognize birthdays and milestones. If stamps and mail delivery aren’t your thing, consider creating video cards or texting a photo of the two of you. 

      1. Remember important names.

Remembering the names of your board members’ spouses and children demonstrates that you care about them as a whole person. Have you ever had that colleague who just can’t remember your spouse or child’s name? Despite the fact that you use their names in conversations with them. And the colleague has even met them at some events! You sense that colleague has a utilitarian view of their relationship with you. They take a limited interest in you to achieve their work goals, but they otherwise don’t really care about you. 

      1. Understand their quirks

I once had a board chair who was adamant that all board documents should use a “page x of y” format. As an example, the footer of the second page of a six-page document would read “page 2 of 6”. It was an odd form of micromanagement. And she was absolutely out of her “governance lane” in asking for this change. 

But in every other aspect of our relationship, she understood her governance role and my staff management role. So I decided to number pages with her desired format. This demonstrated empathy for an issue that was important to her and not so important to me. But after using this format for a few months, I started to find real value in the “page x of y” format. I found it easier to read documents printed double-sided or not stapled. 

Every human is unique and we all have our own pet peeves and favorite things. Getting to understand your board members’ quirks will make you a more effective leader – and you may actually adopt some of them. 

        1. Send surprise texts with a photo that reminds you of them. 

Even though I hate to text, this has become one of my favorite ways to cultivate relationships with my board. If I see something that reminds me of a board member, I snap a quick photo and text it to them. It might be a perfect specimen of their favorite plant, their name on a street sign in another city, or a vegetarian dish they would love to try. 

With a little bit of effort, you can build strong relationships with board members that will last beyond their time on the board. This will help keep them engaged with your nonprofit after their board service. It will also help you stay engaged with them after you’ve left the organization. Some of my favorite relationships with former board members are still so strong that we send cards to each other at life’s milestones and catch up by phone a couple of times a year. Sometimes we’ve even traveled across the country to attend each other’s weddings!

Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:

Podcast: Engage Your Board with Rob Acton

Blog: Saying Thank You to Outgoing Board Members

Why am I writing about this? 

I often provide one-on-one executive coaching to help new executive directors succeed in during their first year. In addition to this one-on-one coaching, I am also launching a coaching group exclusively for nonprofit chief executives in their first year. The coaching group will start in February 2021, and you can learn more about it here.

Feel free to share your thoughts!

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