Board builder Rob Acton joins us to discuss specific strategies and tactics to optimize your board. He offers actionable tactics that you can implement today. Acton, founder of Cause Strategy Partners, discusses the three categories of tactics: making better use of board meeting, treating board members as individuals not “the board” and reshaping board culture.
****Time Stamped Highlights*****
(10:00) Designing board meetings that are not snooze fests
(11:30) An alternative to simply reading the Executive Director’s report
(13:30) The “Plus, Delta, Question” exercise every executive director can use with their board
(17:00) The power of generative questions
(21:40) Building the strategic dashboard your board needs
(28:00) Uncovering the unique strengths of board candidates
(33:15) Rob’s advice for nonprofit board candidates to consider
(35:45) The amount of time a board candidate should expect to volunteer each month.
Dolph Goldenburg: Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits™ Podcast. I’m your host Dolph Goldenburg with our guest Rob Acton to have a conversation about high-impact strategies to boost board performance. Now, this is another conversation that we are recording at board sources BLF in Seattle, and when we actually talk with Rob, we’re going to touch bases with him about how the first day of the conference is gone because we are recording near sunset on the first day of the conference. Now, I was really excited when I realized that I was going to have the opportunity to talk to Rob, and it’s for many reasons. Like him, I spent a lot of time working with boards and building boards, and one of the things that I have found is that a lot of boards, and by the way we know this both anecdotally and statistically, a lot of boards are pretty mediocre, and we know it anecdotally because we have served on boards and we have consulted with boards or we’ve been the executive director or a staff person working with boards. We know statistically as well, whether that’s through Boardsource’s, leading intent report or some other report that we might see.
And one of the things that I often think about when I think about mediocre boards is it is kind of like Jello. When I was a kid, like six, seven years old, I used to be fascinated by making Jello because I would take this cup of boiling hot water, and I would mix it in with the Jello mix, and then I would take a cup of ice-cold water, and I would pour it into the boiling water. And what I would end up with was a bowl of pretty lukewarm water. And there’s something about boards where we take boards that are, sort of mediocre, and we take people who have passion for the cause skills that they want to bring to the board. And so they’re hot, they’re that boiling water and we dump them into a bowl of cold water.
And what we end up with essentially is kind of like the water, those people get, well, kind of sort of Luke warm as well. And so, one of the things that I loved about the possibility of talking to Rob was the ability to talk about how we can keep boards hot and on fire because we know that when we go out and recruit board members, if those board members join a board that is hot and is on fire, their passion and their commitment is likely to be significantly higher. I am thrilled to have Rob with this. He is without a doubt an expert in board recruitment, board development and strategy. Currently, Rob is the principal and founder of Cause Strategy Partners, and they provide strategic counsel and board placement to Fortune 500 companies, foundations and nonprofits with a focus on board and executive leadership. In addition to that, he’s seen the other side of it because he’s been an executive director. And just looking at where he’s been an ED, I have a sense that his politics and my politics are remarkably similar. He was the executive director of the Taproot Foundation in New York and the executive director of the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Society in Chicago. So, let’s play the music and welcome Rob Acton.
Welcome to the podcast, rob.
Rob Acton: Thank you. It’s great to be here, Dolph. I don’t know if your listeners know you’re in a massive ballroom at the top of the Sheridan in Seattle. So well done.
Dolph Goldenburg: Well I have to tell you it was a promotion. I was expecting to be in a closet, and since I’ve been here almost all day, it’s kind of Nice to be in this really nice setting. So how has the first day of the conference gone for you?
Rob Acton: It’s been great. Uh, the board source leadership forum is one of my must attend conferences, used to be annually now biannually in that impart, because I’m a governance junkie and so these are my people talking about my favorite subjects, but also, it’s, it’s a good dose of inspiration. I think I am moved as much by anything is seeing folks who really want to step up, govern, guide, and lead organizations in their community. It’s the highest form of volunteerism. It asks the most of busy leaders in communities. I’m inspired by the level of commitment, the inquiry that’s happening, the questions that are being asked and the expertise being demonstrated by the speakers.
Dolph Goldenburg: Yeah. One of the things that I am so impressed out with this conference is I have rarely seen a conference that has such a good mix of consultants, executive directors, practitioners and board leaders. So, literally, it’s, at least it feels to me like it’s almost a third, a third, a third with,
Rob Acton: With some corporate and foundation funders thrown in, which is a nice mix.
Dolph Goldenburg: So, did you attend any sessions today that really stood out to you?
Rob Acton: Well, I have attended a sessions all day. I led one this morning, so that one stood out to me and it caused some, you know, level of anxiety. No, we had a great time in our session. I think Anne Wallace’s call to action that kicked off the conference and the plenary session. We’ll, we’ll stand out for everyone who just a powerful sort call to action for our community focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion as a core priority. She presented some data from boards versus leading with intent, sort of annual index of board service, and it was sobering, not surprising for those of us that work in the sector, but a very fair and very compelling call to action for our community. Folks that didn’t get an opportunity to be here, I don’t know if that will was recorded and it will be on a website on Board sources, something like that. I hope so. It was really, really a brilliantly conceived and wonderfully executed.
Dolph Goldenburg: One of the things that I love about boards towards moving this issue forward is they realized obviously several years ago that it was an issue, but they decided, as you probably know, they, they made the intentional decision to work on that issue internally and kind of start to move themselves in the right direction before they came out to the broader nonprofit community and said, hey, here’s what everyone should be doing. I
have a great deal of respect for Boardsource for doing that. But I’m also thrilled that this is the conference that’s really starting to raise that issue.
Rob Acton: Yeah, absolutely.
Dolph Goldenburg: I know in your session this morning you were talking about interventions to optimize boards. Before we talk about a few of those specific interventions, tell me how you came up with them.
Rob Acton: The session’s title was “six things you can do right now to boost your board’s performance.” So oftentimes board change, changing the culture of an, of a board, changing the level of engagement of a board. We’re here in Seattle, you know, sort of in the mount where near not too far from us, it can feel a little bit like standing at the base of Mount Rainier and looking up and saying, I’ve got to get there. It doesn’t happen easily. Changing culture, changing systems, changing levels of engagement. So, what I wanted to invest my time thinking about and preparing for the session was, what would be strategies and tactics that we could offer to say, here’s something you can do right now. You know, leaving the conference and getting started to make meaningful change in your board.
It really came out of my experience from about 10 years ago attending my first BLF forum in Washington DC. You know, like so many conferences you kind of, I’ll go to a session, and then I’ll kind of skip a session or two and yeah, I remember thinking, I really want to see the Holocaust memorial, so I’m going to go to this first session and then take the afternoon off. I was so captivated by the learning of that session. I rushed back from my hotel room and started putting pen to paper and building plans for my board. And so, my idea was, how can I help arm the folks who are willing to come in and hear me talk and learn together with some really practical strategies and tactics for optimizing board performance right out of the gate as they go back to their nonprofits?
Dolph Goldenburg: And I think if I recall correctly, you divide those strategies into three buckets.
Rob Acton: That’s right. The first was making better use of board meetings, you know, sort of changing the way the board meeting plays out. And so, board members are engaged and better informed and excited about the work of the organization just through that board meeting itself. Second bucket, the idea is treating board members as individuals, not just the board. You always hear CEO’s refer to my board, but the board is really a collection of very unique individuals with unique strengths and unique approaches. And so, um, some strategies around really thinking about individual board members as, as assets and how to leverage those assets. And then the third was around reshaping board culture. I’m very much focused on that question of board culture and how we can strengthen culture in our leadership work for the organizations.
Dolph Goldenburg: So, what are some of the things that you would recommend changing about meetings
Rob Acton: I know you’re in this line of work too. I serve on a couple boards. I for 12 years was the chief executive officer. Um, and an as a consultant, I participate in a lot of board meetings, and I’m kind of continuously amazed that this kind of hallmark of nonprofit board service, right? The monthly or semiannual or quarterly board meeting, they become snooze fests. Right. And they’re designed to be, so you look over the board meeting agenda and every board meeting agenda is the same. We’ve got the open, the meeting by the chair, approve the last meeting’s minutes, executive director’s report, and then committee report, committee report, committee report, committee report, report and adjourn.
And so, infusing the board meeting with just a different level of engagement that asks the board members to bring the fullness of who they are, their wisdom, their intellect, their insights, their passions, their thoughts on the work that we’re engaging in, and that turns the boarding meeting into a forward-looking conversation for the organization instead of a look back at everything that the committee’s report will have to report on from their committee meetings last month. It can really start to serve to change what happens in that board meeting. And as a result, through an engaged board meeting, turn board members into engaged champions of the organization between the work.
Dolph Goldenburg: What are some of those things that organizations can do so they’re not looking back that said that they’re looking forward?
Rob Acton: One is chief executives need to stop reading the executive director report.
Dolph Goldenburg: Amen.
Rob Acton: And I referenced sort of my early years as an executive director, you know, I’d write what I viewed as frankly masterpieces like great executive director’s report. I’d reserve a day and get out of the office, and sort of write a five or six page document that talked about each aspect of the organization, finances, fundraising programs, staff, progress on strategic plan and the like. And it was a well-written document because I spent a lot of time doing it, and I don’t regret it. That was the right move. Those written reports I think are important tools for a board. It gives them the opportunity in advance of a meeting to really get up to speed on sort of key aspects across the breadth of work that the board’s keeping an eye on. The mistake I made was when in the board meeting, the executive or the board chair returned to me and sort of say, “Rob, time for executive director’s report,” you know, I feel the sense of adrenaline, and it’s like, here’s my moment to shine and I’d spend the next 20 minutes or so reading the report that I’d already written for them.
The change that I recommend to change the very nature of the board meeting right up front, if the executive director’s report comes at the top, sometimes I recommend to actually put it at the bottom so that the board is engaged in a much more meaningful way in the executive director’s report, a sort of the tail end. Get that, get that written report in the document and expect that board members will actually have read it before they show up in the meeting. And then when the board chair turns and says, “Rob, time for the executive director report.” And the first time that I did it, I said these words, essentially, “I hope you all had the chance to read my report. I’d like to respond to what’s interesting to you. So three questions. First question, what did you see in the report that energized you, that fills you with excitement?”
It’s really helpful to me to hear my board share in the excitement of what’s happening in the organization. Or question number two, what did you read in the report that caused anxiety or concern? Really important that we dig into those issues that you as a board are worried about, that you need to know more about that are causing, you know, again, concern. Three, what did you not see in the report that raised questions or you need more information about, you want me to elaborate on? So, I call this to for shorthand and, and I would encourage, you know, folks on, in the podcast to think about this as the Plus Delta question exercise, right? Plus, what did you see that you liked? Delta, what concerns you? A question, what else do you need to know?
Dolph Goldenburg: So, the first time you did this with your board, what was their reaction? They were used to something else. Probably used to something else from the ED before you as well.
Rob Acton: Tread carefully because it can be awkward. I was a college radio DJ, and so dead air makes me nervous, and it was exactly what happened. People looked around, and then they look down at their packet. You see some sort of opening the packet probably for the first time to see if they can pull something together to fill in that dead air. But by the second or certainly by the third meeting, that never happened again because a new structure was in place. I’d introduced sort of a new structure. I’m not going to read you my report. I’m going to trust that we’re all adults here and that you’ve read it and that you care enough to know what’s going on in the organization and we’re going to spend time giving me the opportunity to elaborate on the things that matter to you.
Dolph Goldenburg: I have to tell you that that is Dr. Arthur Brooks is strategy. Dr. Arthur Brooks was my econ professor. He and I disagree on everything politically. He’s now the CEO of the American Enterprise Institute by the way. He was my, my graduate school econ professor, and even though we were in graduate school, he would give us a quiz every week. And when people would ask why, we’re like we were in graduate school, he would say, well this is how I help you do what you’re supposed to do. So, part of what I love about that, you know, you asking the question instead of giving the report is it kind of becomes like that quiz. They know that you’re going to ask the question, and they know they need to be prepared for the question.
Rob Acton: Exactly right. Prepared. All of the sort of principles that we talked about today and that that I think should be top of mind when people prepare board meetings is thinking about how do we get our board member engaged in a conversation, how do we get them contributing? Instead of listening passively to 20 minutes of the things that I think it’s important for them to hear, let’s spend 20 minutes talking about the things that you board members think are important to dialogue about in order for you to better serve your fiduciary and strategic role to the organization.
Dolph Goldenburg: What I love is you’re doing it in such a way that they show up prepared as opposed to, okay, you talked to us for 20 minutes, then we’ll talk to you for two minutes.
Rob Acton: Yup. Precisely.
Dolph Goldenburg: I love that. I am, I am undoubtedly going to steal that and use that with some clients and I know that’s why you’re sharing it is so that people can do it. What’s another one of the strategies you recommend?
Rob Acton: Yeah. So, a second strategy, it’s actually the work of Richard [inaudible] who is attached to the, the board lead a board source community, and it’s really kind of taken hold in the board consultant space. I think a lot of us are, teaching this to boards, the power of generative questions, the power of integrating into a board agenda, usually at the top of the agenda, a brief period of time, maybe 10 or 15 minutes to have the board reflect on again what he calls generative questions. These are questions designed to generate conversation but not meaningless conversation but different meaningful conversation. He distinguishes generative questions from strategic questions. Strategic are what the board will spend most of the time on. You know, like looking at the strategy of the organization, making sure the ship is headed in the right direction, figuring out what course corrections need to be made in the like. Generative questions actually don’t relate to strategy; they’re much more values oriented.
What are the things we believe about ourselves? Who are we as an organization? Um, they help make sense for board members of the why, not the what, not the how, but the why questions. And no decision to be made. You know, we’re going to spend time discussing that, and we’re going to say that was a fantastic discussion. Now let’s move on to the next agenda item. So I gave a couple of examples, and these are examples I’ve used with boards over the years, and I have to tell you at the top of the meeting, they have the power to transform the level of engagement the board members bring to that meeting at the very beginning. You’ve transformed what’s likely to happen in the boardroom thereafter. A couple of examples. Imagine starting off a board meeting, board chair calls the meeting to order, you know, proves the minutes and then says, great, you saw on the agenda the question that we’re going to ask everyone to reflect on today. Let’s go.
Questions like what word in our mission statement means the most to you and why? Or conversely, a question like, what were doesn’t appear in our mission statement but should think about that, right? The board starts just talking about these values or meaningful words that bring purpose to the work of our organization. On what list would we, would we currently rank? Number one on what list would we like to rank? Number one, another great generative question. I could go on and on. I’ll give one last, what three words best describe our organization? You know, let’s go around to my right. Joe, you start and let’s work our way around the room. These are the kinds of conversations that you want your board to engage in talking about the why, the who we are, those values-based conversations, and again it transforms the level of energy, enthusiasm and participation of board members right at the get-go.
Dolph Goldenburg: So about how much time at the top of the board meeting do you think should be allocated to that?
Rob Acton: The recommendation is that you do it at the top, and it can’t go on forever because board members are business-oriented. They want to get to the work of the board. So have it in the agenda. I would actually write out the question and I would say in a two hour meeting you’re talking about probably 10 to 15 minutes at most in a three hour meeting, easily 15 minutes would be appropriate. Part of it informed by the size of the board. So, if you’re a board of five, you know, it’s a much shorter period of time than a board of 40, but long enough to get meaningful engagement from most of the board members, but not too long and making sure that it doesn’t drag out, so that they start to wonder, you know, where are we headed here?
Dolph Goldenburg: How do you set the boundaries around that? And so for example, if you were to say what words should be in our mission, how do you keep a fence around it so that there’s not a conversation about, hey, do we want to change our mission?
Rob Acton: Early on in this process, educate the board around why we’re doing this, right? The, generative question we have at the top of the agenda, please don’t feel any pressure to come prepared with your decision or your emotion. We’re not taking emotion, right? This is designed to help us acclimate with one another around the why, who we are as an organization and why we feel the way we do about the work. And we also want to get to know each other better and learn from one another’s perspectives. Those of you who are sort of like really productive types that really want to make sure every moment counts, guess what? This moment counts, but it doesn’t count because there’s a vote at the end. It counts because the process itself is going to be important to our work, right?
Dolph Goldenburg: Because it’s oiling a machine and making sure the meeting will go better. What’s another innovative strategy you can give our listeners?
Rob Acton: Encourage folks to use a board dashboard to help the board in their fiduciary oversight and just overall tracking of strategic success, programmatic success. I gave a couple of examples in the session. They can be really simple, you know, that maybe just outline five or six core priorities of the organization, the pillars of the strategic plan or priorities that the board is wanting to see the organization move dials on with green, yellow or red warning lights. And so, you know, you’ve kind of got a very simple dashboard that you put in front of the board, but it gives them a sense of where they are, of where the organization is on things they’re measuring. I would encourage a much more robust dashboard which takes some time. It takes some time to build a good one. And in fact, Boardsource has a resource available on board dashboards that includes sort of deep thinking around the process and how you build it and how you get there. It provides some templates on that you can use to sort of build the actual one page,
Dolph Goldenburg: And if I can jump in real quick, I’m bored. Sorts of resources and sometimes you’ll go online, and you’d be like, wow, that costs $65 and that cost $90, but when you buy it, you find, okay, it just saved you 20 hours in making your dashboard, and it’s well worth a hundred bucks.
Rob Acton: Build the board dashboard that your board needs, but think about it as maybe 10 to 15 KPIs, key performance indicators, things that not the CEO has told the board we’re going to give you data on things. The board has told the CEO in a planning retreat somewhere, the long along the way, this is the information we need on a quarterly basis to know that this organization is accomplishing mission, is in a good place for the future. And we need warning lights. We need to know when we’re starting to fall off the track, where we’re trailing goals, where things are starting to come up that concern us against those key performance indicators. So you’re giving the data, green, red, yellow, and then you’re again putting that in front of the board every board meetings, and they’re asking the right questions of the executive director of the senior staff who may be in the room. We’ve sort of transformed the board’s ability to engage, to be informed and to be meaningful governors of that organization.
Dolph Goldenburg: I also have to share with you that one of my favorite board chairs when I was an executive director who has it, Rhonda KR Cook, she was a West Point Grad and Rhonda, and she helped us in creating a dashboard for the board. I loved, I loved her focus on it. So when she first kind of rolled it out to the board for most of the board dashboards were new, you know, it’s 2007 and people were like, okay, what are we doing here? And it was coded red, yellow, green. And the first time she rolled it out, I wish I could make my voice have the same cadence and tone is Rhonda, and I cannot. But Rhonda essentially said, “Okay, you see that there are a lot of Greens on here. When we pass this out, we’re not going to talk about the Greens. We’re going to talk about the yellows and what we can do to turn yellows to green. And we’re going to talk about the reds and what we can do to turn reds to yellow. We are not also going to have the unrealistic expectation that we are necessarily going to take something straight from red to green.”
But it was really funny because like the way she presented it, it was just so clear, and all of the board got what we were going to be doing with the dashboard. And at the time, my management team would come in, you know, to the board meetings with me as well. The management team did not feel like the board was only focusing on what was wrong because they understood from the outset, “Okay, we’re, you know, Greens are good. We don’t have to spend a lot of time on those.”
Rob Acton: I use a phrase regularly, and I used a repeat it two or three times intentionally because I think it most perfectly describes what you want your board doing. You want them to be consumed with mission impact, right? Boards should be consumed with mission impact. Look, this is a cause you care about. You decided to become one of the governors of the organizations, one of the 12 or 15 people governing and guiding and leading this organization from a seat on the board. You just can’t show up to a board meeting, sit politely, smile at the Executive Director’s report, hear a couple of committee chairs and leave you to be leaning in consumed with mission impact. The cause area, whether it’s kids or patients or the environment or animals that need a home, whatever that caused area is, it’s got to kind of get to you, and you have to be consumed with making sure that that mission is not only coming to life but that the organization is constantly improving and growing and professionalizing its ability to get there.
Dolph Goldenburg: Rob, we’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’re going to see if there is one final strategy you would like to share with our listeners.
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Welcome back to the podcast, Rob. So we don’t want to give away everything that you shared in the BLF conference because obviously we want there to be some value for the people that came to the BLF conference. But if there was one more intervention that you wanted to make sure listeners knew about, what would it be?
Rob Acton: I mentioned that the top of the podcast, the idea around treating board members as individuals, not just the board. I’m really passionate about this one. When I’ve been asked to serve on a board, because I’m in this world, this is sort of how I approach it. I want to know, why me? What is it? What’s the unique value or characteristic or skill set or network that I might bring to this organization? And how is that a good fit with not just the organization generally, but specifically where you are as a board, where you are as an organization, what are you trying to accomplish. I don’t think most organizations do that and I don’t think most important candidates explore that together.
You know, we all have been in the board room. Those of us who are in the sector have all been in a board room where it’s sort of like, hey, we need somebody who knows something about finance because our treasurer is going to re design. Does anybody know anybody who’s anybody know anybody? And then, you know, it’s very non-strategic. So what I encourage, uh, board candidates to do is ask that question. But I, as I encourage our nonprofit leaders to say, as a part of that process, make sure you’re really uncovering those unique strengths that a board candidate brings to the table. And once you’ve identified and named those strengths, find opportunities to leverage them to drive mission impact. A while ago, we placed an engineer from Google. I’m on a nonprofit board and you know this, I mean he is a techie.
Like he sits behind a computer, codes, looks at data, analyzes, and that’s a safe space, right? So asking this individual to sort of sell 10 tickets to the gala or lead a silent auction, that’s not going to be where he can drive impact and it’s going to probably make them uncomfortable. This organization had the wisdom in that vetting process to say, you know, what we’d really want you to do is to lead a technology task force. We have a technology problem. We know we’re behind the ball. We need an assessment of our technology. We need recommendations for how to run this organization on a technology platform. Our data measurement is terrible. It sounds like you know something about data we we’d love for you to lead a taskforce. And then this guy was all in; he had found his way to deliver his core skillset, his strengths to better the organization.
At the board meeting he might be sitting next to somebody who has a wildly different set of skills and contribute in wildly different ways. So it’s sort of stepping out of that one-size-fits all mindset. You know, I’ve got “the board,” and what you really have as a collection hopefully of talented individuals who have leveraged appropriately can drive enormous impact for the organization, separate and apart from the board meeting, which we talked about earlier, the sort of general agenda of the board meeting you’ve got the got the opportunity to, to, to grab a hold tremendous skills.
Dolph Goldenburg: Does this mean that you don’t think having a give get is a good idea?
Rob Acton: I think, well two things. Number one, every, every board member must make an annual personal contribution. It’s just a requirement of board service. Foundations are going to ask the nonprofit in a grant application did 100% of the board give.
If the answer is no, they may say, well come back next year after they have. And that’s appropriate, right? These folks are as close as you’d get to owners of an organization. They’re not owners. They’re governors of a nonprofit organization. But it’s fair for another potential funder to say if those folks who are closest to the organization are guiding and leading it aren’t personally investing, why are you asking me? So everybody has to give. In terms of we’ll give-get, I would say everyone has to fundraise. But I think each organization is in a unique situation when it comes to what their expectations can be for board members, right? So, whereas a museum or hospital may be able to set a hundred thousand dollar give-get expectation, another may say we don’t want any minimum give get expectation because we want a cross section of representation on our board from folks that we might serve in the community, senior executives at a company based in our community and everywhere, everywhere in between. So it’s pretty situational, but two things are really clear to me. Every board member must make an annual personal contribution that’s meaningful to them. And secondly, when there’s a fundraising effort, every board member has to engage to the best of their ability.
Dolph Goldenburg: I’m glad that you sort of shared that because as you were talking, I was picturing a board member taking that little bit of a clip and sending it to their board and saying, see not everyone thinks I should have to fundraise. And I figured that was not the way you felt.
Rob Acton: Nope, I’m glad you clarified that. I sure do not.
Dolph Goldenburg: I always like to ask an Off-the-Map question. Sometimes it’s curved ball, sometimes it’s not. Now it’s not really about the topic of what we’re talking about today, but you are in a very unique position at Cause Strategy Partners. The reason I say you’re in such a unique position is because you are helping to place candidates on nonprofit boards. On the one hand you’re advising the board, but then in some cases you’re working with corporations in your advising that candidate. So when you are advising a candidate whether to choose nonprofit A,B or C. what criteria do you recommend they consider?
Rob Acton: We are fortunate in two and a half years we’ve placed 186 board members in New York City and Chicago. We just expanded our program to San Francisco and then a new partnership will take us to Seattle in Washington DC as well this year. So we’re operating in five cities, and it’s exactly what you said. We partner cross-sector partnerships with corporations and foundations to place their talent on nonprofit boards, train and support them along the way. When I’m talking to candidates, number one, bar none, the most important thing is find an organization where you’re passionate about the mission. That’s a core driver of board service. It just doesn’t make any sense to sign up for the role and responsibilities of board service if you don’t feel that organization in your gut, if you don’t resonate with the core mission, but it doesn’t end there.
To me, that’s question number one. Question number two is, what are the expectations for board service, and am I prepared to meet them? So you’ve got financial expectations; you’ve got number of meetings, length of meetings when meetings are held. What is the commitment look like too? Be a volunteer in the programmatic work. Every organization has its own set of role and responsibilities. Look at them and make a determination whether or not you’re willing to accept them. It drives me nuts when people sign up for a board, they know what the role and responsibilities are, and they don’t follow through on them. And then the third thing is professional skills. Figure out, does that organization’s board have a need for your professional skills? So, if I’m an attorney, and I’m talking to a nonprofit organization that has eight attorneys already on the board, I’m less inclined to move in that direction because I’m thinking, I’d like to add my professional lens in a board room where there’s a marketer and an HR professional and a technology expert.
So, I have the opportunity to kind of leverage my core professional skills in a meaningful way because that’s an important way that board members drive value in the nonprofit board room beyond kind of their insights, wisdom, giving and getting in that sort of yeah.
Dolph Goldenburg: So, I want to come back to your item number two, which is asking the board member to take a serious look at what’s expected of them and then asking themselves whether or not they can do it. The reason I want to come back to that is Dolph Goldenburg today always thinks that he will have more time in the future and also have better time management. And then when the future actually comes, Dolph Goldenburg doesn’t have more time and does not have any better time management than he currently has. So how do you help prospective board members think through really how much time they’ve got?
Rob Acton: We first of all set a very clear expectation. We call it the “board leader way.” We have a very clear expectation that that board service is an in-person activity. You’ve got to be at board meetings. If on the rare incidence you can’t be at a board meeting, you’re dialing in from London where work has taken you. Even if it meant getting up at four in the morning, it’s a commitment you need to stick to and you need to be present. It’s an in person activity. You’ll be serving on a committee; you’ll be tend to attending a couple of events a year or you need to prepare for those board meetings. So, part of it is expectation setting and sort of say, a solid board service is probably going to take about six to eight hours a month.
You need to weigh that before you sign up. But once you’re elected, that’s your commitment, and you need to follow through. Everyone’s very busy. I think we’re all stretched beyond our capacity every single day, right? So, part of this is recognizing that this is now a priority of mine. I’m doing this because it’s one of my priority jobs. Well, none of us have time. But you made this commitment because you cared because you were passionate. You said you’d follow through. So, follow through at least through the end of your term. And then you don’t have to re up for your term, but you made a commitment follow through.
I’m a purist on it. I don’t know if maybe it’s my mom and dad and the upbringing I had around following through on commitments, but I’m just a purest in that way. Take the time before you’re elected to that board to weigh it and weigh it. Honestly, there are reasons why sometimes you have to back away from a board.; you move to a new community, and it’s a local organization, right? Or my family situation has changed dramatically. My spouse has a terminal illness. I mean, you can imagine instances where things change, but I just am really passionate about the idea that you’ve made the commitment. See it through. Step up and see it through and all and expect the same out of your other board members.
Dolph Goldenburg: And I don’t know how you feel about it. It’s an, and I agree with you that I would always rather see it all the way through, but I would also rather than an underperforming board member who’s not meeting their obligations, step off the board if they’re not willing to step up, you know, board members norm to the average. So that person brings the average down, and other people look and go, well I’m not, you know, I’m not as bad as Bill over there.
Rob Acton: Someone at BLF said that Board chair’s always stay focused on the end goal. Of course the mission hurting people’s feelings isn’t what’s important. Making unpopular decisions. That’s not the important consideration. The important consideration is always staying focused on the end goal. So you know when you’ve got a board that has a couple members who aren’t following through on the commitment, it’s not fun to fire a volunteer, but if they’re not stepping up, your job ultimately is not to keep relationships easy and avoid difficult conversations. Your job is to keep the mission end goal in mind and that to me dictates a leadership move by the board chair to have a honest conversation. They’re not going to step off themselves, so help usher them off gracefully because we need organizations that are governed by dedicated, committed folks who are really shoulder-to-shoulder on achieving this mission.
Dolph Goldenburg: Rob, thank you so much for joining us today. I have got a great takeaway. That is, don’t treat a board as a single entity, but to treat a board is a group of board members. So thank you. That was phenomenal. I also want to make sure that everyone knows how they can reach out to you. So I would strongly recommend that listeners go to your website at www.causestrategypartners.com, and there they can find out more about your services. You know, they can find out more about you and your team who now apparently is working in five different cities. But then I also want to make sure that people know how to connect with you on social media. And I think your favorite social media right now is on Twitter and you’ve got two Twitter handles http://www.twitter.com/robertacton and http://www.twitter.com/causestrategy. Thank you for joining us today.
Rob Acton: It’s been a huge pleasure, Dolph. Thanks for the opportunity and uh, look forward to finding you in that Delta Lounge very soon.
Be certain to visit www.successfulnonprofits.com to get all of Rob’s contact information from our show notes, and while you’re there, stroll on over to Twitter to make sure that you follow him, and you can also make sure you follow me. I’m at Dolph Goldenburg. With any social media I use, if you put my name in, there’s one in the galaxy, so I will be the person that comes up. Thanks so much for joining us. That is our show for the week. I hope that you have gained some insight that will help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
(Disclaimer) I’m not an accountant or attorney, and neither I nor the Successful Nonprofits™ provide tax, legal or accounting advice. This material has been providing for informational purposes only and is not intended or should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified licensed professional about such matters.