Wearing Both Hats: Lessons Learned as a Board Member and Executive Director

By Megan Stith posted 05-05-2021 09:59

  


At some point in our nonprofit careers, we’ve likely heard a board member or executive director (ED) talk about challenges facing their organization. Those remarks can contain the frustration of not feeling heard, valued, or supported.

What can be done to remind EDs and board members that we’re all on the same team?

After over a decade fundraising, I’ve worn both hats as an ED and volunteer board member for other organizations and used these questions to help understand the other’s perspective.

For EDs working with board members:

  • While board service is a significant commitment, volunteers appreciate the proactive steps that make it easy for them to stay engaged.

    Small things like pledge payment reminders and virtual meeting options help board members remain active despite competing priorities.

    Ask questions to understand their lives, workflow, and how your organization fits into other commitments.

    Recommended question for EDs: What is a typical day like in your board member’s job, and how can we most effectively communicate?

  • As an ED, you’re consumed with your organization on a day-to-day basis and understand all facets of its complexity. Sometimes it’s easy to assume board members are coming from the same perspective when they may need additional context to make informed decisions.

    Recommended question for EDs: What assumptions have I made before presenting this issue, and how could we clarify any areas that may be confusing?

  • Volunteers join boards to make a difference. We can easily forget that goal among all the to-do lists and work of governing the organization.

    How can you connect the board to the lives affected by their involvement on committees or fundraising? Even behind-the-scenes activities can be linked to a story to help inspire board members.

    Recommended question for EDs: What results did the board help make possible? How will that lead to greater impact for our clients?

 

For board members working with EDs:

  • It’s easy to overlook how much communication impacts day-to-day operations in a nonprofit.

    Your RSVP to a board meeting may not seem critical on the surface, but it’s frustrating for an ED to prepare and learn at the last minute that there will not be a quorum to make decisions. Don’t make the ED’s job harder by not responding to communications promptly.

    While board members have multiple demands on their time, so do EDs. Even if you need more time to decide or are facing uncertainty that could affect your response, tell the ED. A response with a declination or requesting more time is better than none at all.

    Recommended question for board members: What does the ED need from me to be effective in their role?

  • Board participation in fundraising impacts the entire organization. While each nonprofit sets its own expectations for board giving, do not assume a board position if you aren’t willing to make a personal gift at a personally meaningful level.

    Although you will also contribute your most valuable asset, time, as a member of the board, having a board united in financially supporting the agency sets a different standard than one lacking this commitment.

    It puts EDs in a precarious position to ask for donations when the organization’s entire board is not leading by example.

    Recommended question for board members: What message am I sending by how I give to the organization?

  • Until you’ve walked in the shoes of a nonprofit ED, it’s tricky to understand how challenging the position can be. EDs juggle the diverse needs and expectations of clients, employees, volunteers, and funders.

    EDs may keep this stress compartmentalized from the board, fearing the vulnerability that comes with exposing the reality of these issues.

    Recognize that EDs are often on the receiving end of more problems than positive feedback. Make it a priority to offer encouragement. Board members should create a safe space for the ED, whether through the support of a mentor or coach or by encouraging open discussion about the hardest parts of the job.

    Recommended question for
    board members: What is most difficult about your ED role. How can we help you overcome those challenges?

 

If you are or aspire to become an ED, seek experience serving on other boards whenever possible.

It’s the most effective avenue to see best practices firsthand or identify issues to prevent in working with organizations in the future.

What lessons or questions would you add to this list?

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